Doug Ducey outlines plan to boost water supplies

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, looks over the printed budget prior to a vote on the Arizona budget at the Arizona Capitol Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Phoenix. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and a top leader in the state Legislature on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, filled in a key part of a developing plan to boost the desert state's increasingly strained water supply. The governor has been working on the plan with Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, both also Republicans. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and a top leader in the state Legislature on Friday filled in a key part of a developing plan to boost the desert state’s increasingly strained water supply.

They plan to create a state agency to acquire new supplies and develop and fund projects, with deep pockets and the authority to go out and find sources that can secure the state’s water future. One potential project is a multibillion-dollar desalination plant in Mexico, but many others are also being eyed, along with efforts to conserve existing supplies.

The proposed new Arizona Water Authority would be funded with an initial $1 billion investment and have the authority to borrow money and issue bonds to fund larger projects. Some of the money will be set aside for cities and towns and even private water companies for smaller local projects.

The western United States is in the midst of a prolonged drought, and Arizona has already absorbed cutbacks in the allocation of Colorado River water that have forced some farmers to let their fields go fallow. More cuts are likely, absent a major weather turnaround.

The Republican governor has been working on the plan with House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, both also Republicans. Bowers has for years been sounding the alarm about the state’s water supplies and trying to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the issue for the long term.

Bowers said in an interview that the specific details of what projects were on the table were sparse on purpose.

“This is not meant to be comprehensive,” Bowers said. “We don’t have a specific project because …we’re not trying to catch up to a project that’s being proposed, and we’re not trying to limit the scope per se of what projects might be available.”

Instead, the agency is designed to look at multiple solutions, including local projects like treating brackish groundwater. Larger projects like developing supplies in three remote desert valleys that have been earmarked for decades as potential sources for metro Phoenix and negotiating for out-of-state water will fall directly under the purview of the new water authority.

Bowers said draft legislation was distributed to majority Republican lawmakers on Friday, and meetings would start Monday to take feedback and firm up the plan.

“We want the comments. We want to see where weaknesses are,” Bowers said. “And if it works out that it has too many, then we don’t do it that way.”

The state already has major water agencies, including the Department of Water Resources and an agency that stores groundwater in the central part of the state. In addition, the Central Arizona Project runs a massive canal and reservoir system that brings in Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, the state’s two major metropolitan areas.

The new agency will be different. Its role will be to shop for water around the West, partner with private companies to develop, store and transport those supplies and use the state’s financial heft to get those projects done.

The public agency will be overseen by a bipartisan board, with the majority appointed by the governor from people well-versed in water issues and have strong conflict-of-interest rules. Any expenditure over $100 million will need approval by a special legislative committee.

“This going to be a project over time,” Ducey told reporters. “That’s how we address the next 100 years in Arizona.”

Bowers said time is of the essence.

“Given the bathtub ring on Lake Mead,” Bowers said, “I want to stand up something that can be a partner in these efforts, and it has to happen rather quickly. As in, quick.”

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.