ATA Episode 7 SUMMARY The Colorado River is a key source of water in Arizona, and it’s dwindling in the face of a mega-drought now in its second decade. Arizona lawmakers are working across the aisle to find new water supplies for the arid state, where some farming areas get only three inches of rain a year.
This is Across the Aisle, the podcast on bipartisanship from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m Kelley Griffin
There’s an old saying in the arid West: Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting. There have always been plenty of fights over water. But recently in Arizona, major water measures have gained strong bipartisan agreement and brought together groups that typically square off: farmers, cities, environmentalists, developers, Republicans, Democrats.
The Legislature agreed to invest $1 billion dollars to find new water supplies for the desert state, and in a separate measure, the state is asking the federal government to investigate diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi River for use in the West.
That bold plan alone tells you a lot about how big the stakes are for water. Rep. Tim Dunn, who sponsored the bill about the Mississippi River, knows firsthand.
He’s a farmer in Yuma. If you’ve eaten a salad or vegetables in winter, it’s probably thanks to a Yuma farmer.
Dunn - People don't realize that, you know, being on the, the far bottom end of the Colorado River system, Yuma, because of its climate access to labor, you know, and, and our great quality soil and water, we produce 90, over 90% of the vegetables, the winter vegetables between November and April. So if you're eating a salad in somewhere in the United States, in North America, it's coming from, from, um, Arizona.
These farms rely on the Colorado River. They certainly don’t get enough rain to grow crops, but they get steady warmth and sunshine year-round. The river provides the water.
But a mega-drought in the West puts Colorado River water at risk. More than 40 million people in 7 states and Northern Mexico rely on the river. A big majority goes to agriculture—75 percent—and the rest to cities and towns for residential and industrial use. The water is banked in two key reservoirs: Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, and Lake Powell at Glen Canyon Dam. In recent years, their levels have dropped so low, it has put electric power generation for millions of customers at risk. It could even fall below the release valve and then no water could be sent downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The Interior Department is requiring these states to sharply curb their use of the river. In May, the states agreed to cut back with financial help from the federal government until 2026, when the states will have to shoulder more of the costs—and the water problem is expected to be worse.
So with all this looming, maybe it’s not so strange to think of pumping Mississippi floodwaters hundreds of miles, essentially uphill. Dunn isn’t the first person to think of it—it has been debated and studied over the years. But he decided to put the idea in motion after a visit to his brother’s farm in Mississippi.
Dunn - you know, we get three inches of rainfall a year here in Arizona. We go out to Mississippi and you can get three inches of rainfall in two hours
He also noticed how often the land the family farms in Mississippi was under water.
Dunn - Between the over 10,000 acres that the collective family farms there's always someone that has backed up a flood water or damage from floods and rain.
Dunn figured siphoning off the floodwaters could help farms all along that river and in the West. And if it’s a pipe dream, well, it calls for a very large pipe - as much as 88 feet wide, one study says. He knows there are massive obstacles around cost, environmental impacts and water rights that he hopes a thorough study would answer. And he hears from plenty of people who think it’s, well, kind of crazy.
Dunn -You know, there's a lot of things that were too big and crazy when we started building dams, the Hoover Dam, we started doing these kind of things, trying to move gas and oil across the, people are like, what are we doing here? When you're in a drought though and you need water what is, what is expensive? What, what is high? And so you just gotta start looking to the future.
Indeed, the federal government has already spent billions of dollars over the years managing water in the West, and there was a time when it was considered a waste if a river ran to the sea without being diverted for productive use.
President John F. Kennedy did a tour of Western dams in 1962 and urged planners to look ahead.
Kennedy - What are we going to do in 1962 beginning today to determine what projects we should develop so that by the end of this century when there are 300 million people in the United state that there will be available to them land and water and light and power and resources?
In that vein, Senator Sine Kerr sponsored the big bipartisan water measure in 2022 to look for future water supplies.
Kerr - We need to make sure that we leave no stone unturned and that we contemplate every idea.
Kerr says the drought and imminent cutbacks of Colorado River use got everyone to the table.
Kerr - You know, at first, uh, it was billed as, you know, the largest drought in a hundred years. Well, then a few hundred years now we're up to, um, by historical record, the largest drought in, in maybe over a thousand years. And so it was, it was that, you know, being in the midst of it and, and realizing, you know, for us to have a secure water future, we really do need to get serious.
It’s not like Arizona has been frittering away its water. For a century, the state has made policy and built infrastructure to support water needs - using the Colorado River, stored in Lake Mead, groundwater and conservation. Most recently, the state prohibited growth on “raw desert” with no groundwater supply. And in 2019, it developed a bipartisan Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River.
But there is always more to be done. Kerr proposed $1 billion over three years to explore things like moving and storing water in the state or looking outside its borders, particularly at the idea of using ocean water through desalination plants being considered in Texas and Sonora Mexico. The money is a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of almost any big water project, but she says it creates a structure and seed money so the state can be responsive to new solutions.
Kerr says she and everyone involved knew from the start it needed to have bipartisan support to demonstrate a unified approach to such a critical resource.
Kerr - That was a main goal at the onset was that this needs to be bipartisan. And because we were doing such a historical, um, thing for Arizona and, and so we really wanted to make sure that it was bipartisan and that was a priority. And, and that doesn't mean, you know, it was kumbaya all the way through.
Just when Kerr thought everything was ready to go, there was a new wrinkle. Democrats wanted conservation to be part of the mix. Then-state senator Lisa Otondo asked for $200 million to award grants for specific projects—tearing out residential lawns and swimming pools, or improving efficiency in farm operations.
Otondo - I really believe we need the buy-in from the public, and I believe many public members, both rural and urban, would like to begin to implement, uh, water conservation projects in their homes, perhaps their businesses. Um, and they, uh, they would really appreciate the support of the state to do so. So conservation efforts are extremely important and can help, although we cannot conserve our way out of the situation with water, but it's important piece.
Kerr says the conservation piece made sense, but for awhile it looked like a deal breaker because of the costs until they agreed to use ARPA money for it. That ensured the support of Democrats.
Next steps won’t be simple, they never are with water policy. Water may still be for fighting as it gets harder and harder to come by. But Kerr believes this time the very act of fighting over details was a good thing.
Kerr – It was just wonderful being part of the whole process because it, it took many different turns and it was in that collaboration with everyone at the table in and across the aisle and several different agencies ///and working with the governor's office as well./// 42:34 so I've learned to really embrace, uh, the challenging times and knowing that, you know, you're, you're gonna learn a lot. And I would almost say every time you get a better bill, after you've had those struggles and you've worked through the concerns and, and what that bill that comes out at the end really, you know, serves the people of Arizona even better.
I’m Kelley Griffin. Thanks for listening to Across the Aisle. What kind of bipartisan work has happened in your statehouse? Please drop us a line, the email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And check out NCSL’s other podcasts. There’s The Inside Storey where NCSL’s CEO Tim Storey interviews experts in leadership and legislatures. The podcast Our American States dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislatures today. And also check out our special series “Building Democracy” which looks at the colorful history of legislatures. Find them wherever you get your podcasts.