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New water reductions likely for Arizona as Colorado River negotiations resume

Current management plan for the Colorado River is set to expire in 2026
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Posted at 6:34 PM, Dec 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-21 20:34:52-05

While the New Year is just around the corner, an old problem will be front and center for Arizona once again — water. Top water policy leaders from the seven basin states met last week in Las Vegas to discuss how to move forward as the current management plan for the Colorado River is set to expire in 2026.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said the goal is to reach a long-term solution to close the gap between the supply of water versus the demand.

“In the upper basin states, the evaporation losses, they're inherent in their water use already. So we're going to step up and start taking it, but that means somewhat of a permanent reduction, maybe not 100% of the time, but that's one of the things we're negotiating,” Buschatzke said.

One of the most difficult challenges is climate change, a problem Butschatzke said wasn’t really talked about before.

“Climate change is permanently reducing the flow of the river. We don't think the upper basin should suffer by themselves the impacts of climate change, we don't think the lower basin should, we don't think Arizona should or Arizona water users,” Butschatzke told ABC15. “So climate change is one of the drivers now for our new world.”

Butschatzke said talks have progressed with California and Nevada and he also expects Mexico to participate in reaching a new agreement to address the structural deficit — using more water than the entitlements allow. He added that he expects to have more details sometime in the Spring.

The basin states are not the only ones who have a stake in the Colorado River, the 30 federally recognized tribes are also finally getting their voice heard.

“Mother Nature's is not blessing us with too many rainy days and snowpacks, so we have to make up for that, and by making up for that, we all have to come together to collaborate,” Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores told ABC15.

Flores said while she’s pleased with the progress and collaboration, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“We haven't had the seat at the table yet. So we need to go to the next step and allow for the tribes to sit at the table and in negotiations and discussions, planning out, you know, the use of the river,” Flores said.

The Colorado River won’t be the only water-related issue heading into the New Year, a handful of water proposals are likely to stir debate once the Arizona Legislature resumes in 2024.

Butschatzke hopes to see two proposals pass in the legislature — one addressing the Groundwater Management Act so homebuilders can no longer circumvent the certificate of showing a 100-year water supply and another focused on managing rural groundwater.

“We need to figure out how to move forward because we still need homes. But we also want to still make sure that those homes have 100 year renewable supply. It's kind of a consumer protection program,” Butschatzke told ABC15. “On the other end, in most parts of Arizona groundwater is not managed. So we have a rural groundwater management framework that would allow management of that groundwater in ways that are more flexible than the existing management areas in those populous counties.”