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What the Devil won't tell you

Arizona thirsty: Tucson should answer Ducey's call for bipartisan drought planning ... or else

Ever been thirsty?

Yeah, Arizonans know what I’m talking about. Should a Pennsylvanian see this, disregard. You don’t know. I’m talking noon-in-June-no-AC-in-the-car thirsty. After driving across town. And hitting every light. I’m talking hiking-in-the-desert-and-took-a-wrong-turn thirsty.

Desert thirsty. Arizona thirsty.

Spread out before you could be the finest wine – Lafite Rothschild shit – filet mignon from Kobe cattle, crab legs out of the shell right next to the butter... and you will toss the table over to get to a glass of agua fria. Every Tucsonan know how their body can feel like an expanding sponge as water hits the back of their parched throat.

The body denied water craves water like nothing else.

So does an economy.

Arizona, for years now, has been living a lie of sorts: that we can put 6 million, 8 million, 10 million, 15 million people someday in a desert and rely on a dying river to quench our thirst.

So Arizonans should applaud Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement during his State of the State address that he will push for water security. Tucson should be … a bit nervous. There are a lot of thirsty stakeholders out there. Arizona thirsty.

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Ducey’s not just talking to talk. Lakes Powell and Mead are below 40 percent capacity. The U.S. Department of Interior is threatening to bullwhip the six states sucking on straws in the Colorado River if they can’t reach a drought agreement by Jan. 31.

"No one stakeholder is going to get everything they want. Everyone is going to have to give. And I’ve been impressed by the willingness of those involved to do just that," Ducey said during his address to kick off the new legislative session.

Calls for shared sacrifice usually spell doom for Tucson (see: sales tax, shared), so local leaders better cowboy up and answer his call for bipartisan cooperation to deal with Arizona drought. 

We got it. They want it.

The fight is coming and for once this isn't a chief executive manufacturing a crisis. Arizona could start losing our Colorado River water by increments of hundreds of thousands of acre feet if no deal is reached.

First to feel the thirst will be the farmers. Next will be the tribes. After that will be Tucson, no doubt.

Tucson puts 127,000 acre feet of Colorado River water into the ground to save for an un-rainy day because we don’t need all ours.

Water is kind of like the quantum mechanics of Western politics. It pretty much controls everything but it’s complicated and only the experts seem to understand it. Tucson had water wars 20 years ago and they got ugly as car dealer Bob Beaudry tried to assert himself as water czar and Mayor George Miller fought public opinion to turn on the spigot to Central Arizona Project water so the Colorado River could pump up the city's economic future. It was a mess.

What you need to know about water law is that rights are divvied based on seniority and municipalities like Tucson have it. Farmers don’t. Tribes have more than farmers but tribes like the Tohono O’odham traded their groundwater rights for CAP allocation to settle court cases decades in the making.

What you also need to know about water law is that it’s fluid. Really fluid.

This from the Water System Council’s 2016 paper trying to categorize water law as it stands.: “State groundwater law is constantly evolving to respond to scientific, geopolitical and environmental developments. As a result, the future of groundwater law is increasingly difficult to predict.”

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Oh joy.

What you need to remember about politics is Jungle law: We got it. They want it. They’re strong. We’re weak. 

The climate is doing something ... wouldn't want to say ...

None of this is cause for overwhelming concern at the moment but when we are talking about water we are talking the decades can just fly by. 

Ordinarily a drought like this would be just something to weather, and maybe it still is. They happen in the Southwest thanks to Pacific Decadal and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. The oceans warm and cool, so Arizona flips to drought, flood, drought flood. The average is like the midpoint between Tucson and Phoenix. It exists on paper but no on spends much time there.

What happens though, when that normal climate occurrence is interrupted? The climate could … oh, what’s the word … “change.”

Yeah, see, a lot of people don’t like to deal with climate change warnings, preferring to just ignore them. Arizona suddenly isn’t “a lot of people.” We’re dealing with it now. The last drought in the 1950s. This drought is going on 19 years old. We’re dealing with it right now.

More to the point, what happens should we lose what’s filling the Colorado? According to one international study, the Rockies have lost 20 percent of their snowpack in the last three decades. The drought is only partly to blame. Warmer temperatures melt the snow. The same study predicts 60 percent of the snowpack will be lost by 2060.

It bears pointing out that predictions involving specifics of climate change have been iffy. Yet we know why it rains. We don’t always predict rainy days.

The un-partisan fight

Climate change brings a dimension not yet in play to drought management and that dimension is partisan politics.

So far, there’s no effort to debunk the drought in a quest to discredit liberalism. We can tell because the two sides in the Colorado River debate aren’t drawn between red and blue teams. They are the upper and the lower.

The Upper Colorado Basin states of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming are out to protect their hydroelectric capacity (they've got some mighty dams) are pitted against the Lower Basin states Nevada, Arizona and California, who need it to support hefty populations.

The two sides are close to an agreement but Arizona and California are holding out, even thought they have agreed to use less water.

Think about that for a second. The federal government is shutdown for the want of $5.7 billion dollars. There’s a deal where Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California political leaders are nearing consensus on a complicated, convoluted and high stakes issue. In fact, stakes don’t get much more severe out West than who gets what water and for how much.

If controlling greenhouse gasses is stifling economic output, curtailing water would be a threat to economic input. We can have an economy – theoretically – without fossil fuels. Try it without water.

So far, no one is taking impossible stands on faux issues just to troll the other side.

This is what happens when Rush Limbaugh stays out of it.

Something in it for us?

So Ducey wants a bipartisan solution to the water issue and Tucson has both Democrats and Colorado River water to spare. This would be a step forward for a governor whose efforts to deal with the drought originally cut the tribes out of talks.

Some enterprising Democratic legislators might want to join him to protect Arizona’s end. Managing the drought is not optional.

Maybe, perhaps, we could get some of that state shared revenue returned back this way in exchange for some short-term water concessions.

Maybe we just make sure we aren’t ripped off by any settlement reached when our Southern Arizona people aren’t there in the room.

Either way, Arizona is going to get really thirsty in the near future and when people get Arizona thirsty, they get desperate. When people get desperate, the weak are lambs whom the wolves discuss alone. The wolves meet in Phoenix.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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34 comments
Jan 20, 2019, 11:01 am
-0 +0

Garsh, no more cotton farming.  Dang.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Gov. Doug Ducey, speaking Tuesday in Tucson, used his 'State of the State' address to issue a bipartisan call for action to deal with the drought.

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