Three issues must be addressed at the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, abbreviated as CAWCD. One is very big and regional, one is big but within Arizona, and one is process-oriented.
Issue #1: Shortage on the Colorado River
The really Big Issue that faces CAWCD is the coming shortage on the Colorado River. CAWCD operates the Central Arizona Project canal to bring water into Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties from the Colorado River. But water levels are dropping in Lake Mead, and will soon fall below an elevation of 1,075 feet. This is a trigger level that will cause a declared shortage on the River, probably in 2020.
Arizona will then face cuts in the amount of water flowing down the CAP canal, which will mean reduced water deliveries for farmers, cities, and tribes. Farmers will feel the pain first, as irrigation water is cut back. Eventually, with further drops in Lake Mead water levels, cities and tribes will also face cuts in water deliveries, possibly as early as 2023. And this means that water for homes will be at risk.
The solution must be regional, covering Arizona, California, Nevada and even Mexico. Water policy experts—including myself—have been discussing solutions. The best regional solution to emerge has been the Drought Contingency Plan. While California and Nevada are ready to sign on, Arizona still has not reached an internal consensus. A large group has recently been convened to address the major concerns of farmers, cities, tribes and others that receive water from the CAP canal.
This issue absolutely must be successfully wrapped up within the next several months. The Bureau of Reclamation has said in public that if Arizona doesn’t participate in the Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona will be left to its own devices to deal with shortages. That is a serious threat. Alone, Arizona’s economy will suffer far more than if we face the challenge with other states in the region. Those experienced in water policy—such as me—are aware of the need to focus on shortage.
Issue #2: The Struggle for Control
The Drought Contingency Plan came out in 2016, and everyone hoped for early approval. But Arizona wasted most of 2017 in a fruitless confrontation between the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) and the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR). It flared up when ADWR found out that CAWCD was claiming legal authority (a concept called “sovereign immunity’) that essentially made it equal to state government. CAWCD promised not to do it again—and then they did it again the very next week against the Ak-Chin Indian Community, a customer. The disputes moved on to who was in control of forbearance programs to save water, whether or not unordered water on the Colorado River was excess water, and the ability of CAWCD to negotiate water deals without ADWR. Really it boils down to who speaks for Arizona on Colorado River issues--who is in charge.
ADWR fanned the flames from its own side. During the summer of 2017, ADWR and the Governor’s Office convened a closed group to discuss issues associated with the Drought Contingency Plan. CAWCD quickly saw the effort as an attempt to bring CAWCD under control, rather than a true negotiation. CAWCD convinced the Legislature that the discussions were more about CAWCD governance than shortage. As a result, early in the 2018 session, the Legislature did not introduce the bills that ADWR expected, but focused on a set of bills that CAWCD felt comfortable with.
Amidst all of the acrimony, the Bureau of Reclamation said little. But when it became clear in 2018 that declared shortage was becoming more probable, they must have said something fairly forceful. CAWCD and ADWR have ceased fighting (temporarily), and are now working together to develop an Arizona plan that will bring the various interests on board, so that Arizona can sign on to the Drought Contingency Plan.
That’s a start. But this animosity lies just under the surface. Resolution is seen as necessary by water resources professionals—including me. CAWCD and ADWR must recognize that each does certain things very well indeed, and allow the other entity to do those things. Shortage is the concern here, not who is running the state.
Issue #3: Customer Service
CAWCD is a wholesaler. They operate the Central Arizona Canal in order to deliver Colorado River water to the sub-contractors and contractors, who are the water retailers. Cities provide water to their residents, irrigation districts send water to their farmers, and tribes use their water for a variety of purposes. The problem is that for Colorado River water, CAWCD is the only wholesaler in the state— and they often act like it.
Since 2007, I have seen many instances when CAWCD took unexpected actions, and claimed it was in the best interest of the customer. All too often, the customer didn’t see it that way. I know that feeling, because for over a decade I have worked at the City of Peoria, and often have been caught unawares by a surprise move by CAWCD that hurt some City initiative or program.
One of the basic tenets of excellence in customer service is openness and transparency. Announcing surprise decisions without any prior consultation with the sub-contractor is not good customer service.
Recently CAWCD concluded a laudatory effort to address issues of poor customer service, and failure to be open and transparent. A number of actions were identified that may improve the relationship between CAWCD and its sub-contractors. But in truth, what is needed is a massive shift in attitude, from “we know best” to “the customer knows best their own needs.” This will require Board members who have been in the role of customer, have received the short end of the stick, and will carefully monitor any effort that doesn’t take into account the effect on the customer.