Vote expected today on Ducey's drought contingency program

Arizona is nearing a deadline to approve a plan to ensure a key reservoir in the West doesn't become unusable as a water source for farmers, cities, tribes and developers. Other Western states are watching. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects full agreement on a drought contingency plan by Jan. 31. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Arizona is nearing a deadline to approve a plan to ensure a key reservoir in the West doesn't become unusable as a water source for farmers, cities, tribes and developers. Other Western states are watching. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects full agreement on a drought contingency plan by Jan. 31. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

PHOENIX, Ariz. - State lawmakers are set to vote -- and presumably give final approval -- sometime today to a drought contingency plan designed to help deal with how Arizona deals with being able to draw less water from the Colorado River.

On Jan. 30 the Senate Committee on Water and Agriculture gave its blessing to the plan which includes buying water from Indian tribes, making changes in laws about storage credits and providing money for Pinal County farmers to drill new wells to replace, at least in part, what they will not be getting from the river.

That last point bothered Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who cast the lone dissenting vote.

"This, to me, is a free-for-all for special interests,'' he said, rather than dealing with the fact that Arizona is a desert in the middle of a drought. What's needed, Mendez said, is "an honest assessment of whether we can base our state's economy on continuous growth and on welfare for whatever water-intensive uses.''

But Mendez was in the minority, with even fellow Democrat Lisa Otondo of Yuma saying he's missing some key points.

"The Pinal County farmers have a grandfathered right to pump,'' she said, regardless of what happens with the state's share of Colorado River water.

She said this plan seeks to find other water from other sources for the farmers to make up for the loss of their own allocation of river water. That includes buying water rights from Indian tribes.

Otondo said that, in turn, reduces the amount of additional groundwater the farmers will need to pump.

All the other states in the upper and lower Colorado River basin already have approved their plans for how to divide up the decreasing amount of water that will be available.

Lake Mead is expected to drop below 1,075 feet above sea level by next year, triggering mandatory reductions in water that can be taken from the river.

Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, has warned that unless Arizona lawmakers act on their deal and it is signed by Gov. Doug Ducey by midnight Jan. 31 night she will begin the process of coming up with her own plan. And Tom Buschatzke, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said that is likely to mean even less Colorado River water for the state than Arizona would get from the interstate agreement that is linked to the state's drought contingency plan.

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