PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey signed a drought contingency plan Thursday afternoon, just six hours ahead of the deadline set by a key federal official for the state to act or face having their Colorado River water supply determined by her.
The move followed the nearly unanimous support of both the House and Senate. But that came despite objections from some legislators who questioned why the state was not just allowing Pinal County farmers to once again pump groundwater for their crops but was also going to provide cash to help them do it.
The deal provides $9 million in cash to help construct new wells and the systems to deliver the water to farmers, with $7 million directly from state taxpayers and another $2 million already in the coffers of the Department of Water Resources. Several lawmakers pointed out the original offer was for just $5 million overall.
There was also concern about a provision in the law which would appear to promise the farmers -- or at least the irrigation districts that serve them -- another $20 million if they need it.
Farmers are hoping to get a federal grant for those dollars. But Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, questioned whether it's really going to leave Arizona taxpayers on the hook for the entire amount.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said that's not the case.
"That's not actual spent money,'' he said. "It's a grant guarantee.''
He said it's no different than when the state pays the up-front costs of fighting fires knowing that there eventually will be reimbursement from Washington.
But House Speaker Rusty Bowers cautioned colleagues that it isn't that simple.
"The government isn't guaranteeing us anything,'' he said. "They're just saying there is a grant program.''
State action became necessary because existing agreements say that when Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level it triggers automatic reductions in how much water can be taken out of the Colorado River. Projections are the lake will drop below that point next year.
The six other states and Mexico that all have rights to Colorado River water have all agreed to make cuts in what they draw to restore the lake back to close to 1,090 feet. Much of the credit goes to Nevada and California who have agreed not to draw some of the water they are entitled to take right now, before the lake hits 1,075 feet.
But it also means that Arizona needs to reduce its draw from the river by up to 700,000 acre feet between now and 2026, against the state's current annual pre-drought allocation of 2.8 million acre feet. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, considered enough to serve a typical family of two for a year.
And with farmers having the lowest priority, they would be the ones to take the first cuts.
The rush came because Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, warned that unless all the state signed off by midnight Thursday night she would begin the process of coming up with her own plan. And that is likely to give Arizona even less river water than the deal the state ratified.
This plan helps farmers deal with getting less river water by paying tribes, who have higher priority claims to the water, $30 million to reduce their use. And then there's the part of the pact to put Pinal County farms back on groundwater with taxpayers footing part of the bill to do that.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he was concerned about what this was encouraging.
"What I do have a problem with is all of these subsidies and all of this money going to allow farmers to plant super water-needing crops like pecans and cotton,'' he said.
Kavanagh pointed out that this was an area of the state that more than a decade ago was experiencing fissures and subsidence. To deal with that, he said, the farmers were switched to water delivered through the Central Arizona Project.
"They stopped pumping the groundwater and that problem stopped,'' Kavanagh said.
"But now, because of this crisis, we're taking them off CAP and throwing them back in the groundwater,'' he continued. "And I'm assuming there's a good chance we're going to be getting more fissures and subsidence.''
Ducey, in signing the drought contingency plan, acknowledged the complaints that there actually is really nothing in it to promote conservation and cut water use. And he said that remains a priority.
But the governor had no specifics, instead signing an executive order forming a council "to analyze and recommend opportunities for water augmentation, innovation and conservation.'' Its its first report is not due until July 1, 2020.
And he sidestepped a question of whether future conservation efforts would affect more than just farmers, responding that the state uses less water today than it did in 1957 despite population growth.
Ducey acknowledged, though, that it makes sense that future efforts to reduce water consumption are likely to focus on agriculture which he said uses 70 percent of all the water consumed in Arizona.
Bowers, however, said it isn't a simple matter to tell farmers that they should grow different crops that use less water.
"Farmers don't just say, 'I like cotton,' ' he said. "They grow cotton because we use cotton. They grow alfalfa, a high water-consuming crop, because dairy cows need it.''
And he said 35 to 40 percent of the dairy products used in the state's metro areas come from Pinal County.
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, acknowledged the measure may not be perfect.
"Everybody doesn't like something in the bill,'' she said. "But that was the negotiation amongst the stakeholders.''
She also said lawmakers need to understand the need for the action and what it is -- and is not -- designed to do.
"This is not a Band-Aid,'' Otondo said. Nor is it a solution to the state's water woes.
"This is an intervention,'' she said, making changes to that 2007 plan made necessary by the drought, and doing so in a way to mitigate the loss of Colorado River water to users in Central Arizona.
And she agreed that there is more the state can do. But Otondo said that, for the moment, there is no choice but to approve the plan.