Arizona’s newly inaugurated Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) has no time to waste as she faces the daunting challenge of addressing the state’s use of water from the overallocated Colorado River.
Arizona is one of three states in the river’s lower basin, along with California and Nevada. Historic drought, intensified by climate change, has battered the region for the entire 21st century, and last year, the river’s waters dropped to a level that triggers automatic allocation cuts from the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Arizona was issued the largest cut of any state, at 21 percent. The cuts took effect on Jan. 1, the day before Hobbs took office, forcing her to hit the ground running on the issue.
Ultimately, she will need to oversee decisions about how the state allocates its dwindling supply from the key river, balancing competing interests between rural agricultural communities and booming cities.
One of the “first and most important thing[s]” directly under Hobbs’s control is something she’s already done, according to Dave White, director of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. Ahead of her inauguration, Hobbs confirmed she’d retain Tom Buschatzke as director of the state Department of Water Resources.
Buschatzke, appointed by Hobbs’s predecessor Doug Ducey (R) in 2015, has been “an integral and important leader in water policy and management in the state” as well as representing the state in interstate negotiations over Colorado River allocation, White said, making his continued presence vital to continuity on water policy. If basin states cannot reach a new agreement, updating the century-old compact that governs the river’s waters, the federal government has raised the prospect of imposing cuts itself, separate from the Bureau of Reclamation cuts.
“He’s certainly a very knowledgeable guy and very well-respected, so that was a good start,” said Terry Goddard, chairman of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. “[Hobbs] basically sent the message that there wouldn’t be a big change or a big disruption in Arizona’s position” in interstate talks.
As a result of that decision, “we’re not losing momentum here, which is very important,” said Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
In an interview with The Hill, Buschatzke said that by remaining in his position he would be able to continue building on the relationships with other negotiators he has already established.
“It’s really important to have that basic relationship throughout the basin and I think it will serve Arizona well and it will serve Gov. Hobbs well as she helps define the policy direction that the state is following,” Buschatzke said.
Arizona saw one of the most contentious gubernatorial elections in the country in 2022, with GOP candidate Kari Lake making baseless claims about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election and, after her own loss, the 2022 election as well. However, Megdal said, policymakers in the state largely treat water issues as nonpartisan, further smoothing Hobbs’s path.
“Arizona has had a long tradition of bipartisanship or non-partisanship when it comes to water issues of importance to the state,” she said. Ultimately, she said discussions around water issues are driven by disagreement on issues such as tribal sovereignty and the rights of farmland versus cities, rather than disputes between Democrats and Republicans.
“We are the one state [in the Colorado River Compact] where our chief negotiator has to have legislative approval to sign on to agreements and the like,” she noted. “And so it’s very important that Governor Hobbs be in a position as governor to call the legislature together on these matters, to be able to be prepared to approve going forward with proposed agreements and so forth.”
Megdal noted that the state has already seen more than 500,000 acre-feet worth of water cutbacks, so there is already something of a playbook for addressing it. “But I think the big question now is whether those extremely large effects are necessary in order to save the system from crashing,” she added.
Buschatzke agreed, saying Arizona was well-prepared for the Bureau of Reclamation cuts, but “the real issue [is] much more needs to be done to stabilize the system, and it’s uncertain as to how big a number we’re going to come up with to stabilize the system.”
“I will continue to advocate for collaborative solutions to get as much voluntary compensated conservation or into Lake Mead to avoid mandatory cuts from the federal government,” he said.
Goddard added, however, that Arizona’s issues will require more than savvy staffing decisions to fully address. First and foremost, the Central Arizona Project, the over 300-mile canal that serves 80 percent of the state’s population, is prioritized last for river water allocation, he noted. It will take “a lot of leadership” from Hobbs, he said, to try to develop a plan that makes hard choices, such as whether to continue routing water to areas that grow alfalfa while cities experience cutbacks.
“It’s going to take gubernatorial leadership to bring everybody together and get some new arrangements,” he said.
Ultimately, White said, Arizona’s water issues are more complex than simply whether there is enough water, but rather what usages are given top priority.
“That’s another thing that the governor is really critical for doing that for, for creating a space for a conversation about how we invest our water for different values without having it be agriculture versus industry or agriculture versus cities or rural versus urban,” he said. “That’s a big part of what leadership means in this state, is to talk about how we can invest that water in ways that benefit across those different perspectives.”