Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Director Tom Buschatzke of the Arizona Department of Water Resources: Dealing With the Tier 1 Shortage on the Colorado River

Arizona is an arid state whose productive farmland and major urban areas are supplied by carefully husbanded water from the Colorado River, among other sources. The severe, decades-long drought in the Colorado basin has now triggered a tier 1 shortage under the terms of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) and, with it, automatic cuts to certain lower-priority water users in Arizona and the other basin states. In this interview, Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), tells us about how Arizona is responding to the tier 1 cuts and planning to secure its future water supplies. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell our readers about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Tom Buschatzke: I have a bachelor of science degree in geology from the State University of New York. I came to Arizona to attend graduate school at Arizona State University. I have 40 years of experience in water resource management. I started working for the ADWR in 1982 as an intern. I spent 6 years there and then went to work for the City of Phoenix for more than 20 years. In 2011, I came back to the ADWR as an assistant director, overseeing many of its policy licensing functions. In 2015, the governor appointed me director, and I have been in this role ever since. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the ADWR. 

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey at the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan signing event in January 2019.

Tom Buschatzke: The department was created by the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. We are both a regulatory and a planning agency, and we are responsible for Colorado River management throughout the state. We also do a lot of permitting—for instance, requiring developments to have 100 years of an assured water supply before houses can be built. We also have a program for municipal, industrial, and agricultural water users to increase their conservation through a series of 10‑year plans extending through 2025. I think it’s critical that we plan for the sustainability and augmentation of our water resources. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your thoughts about the tier 1 cuts under the DCP? 

Tom Buschatzke: The cuts are a necessary evil. We need to look at ways to slow the decline of Lake Mead. That’s what the first year of the tier 1 cuts is intended to do. Unfortunately, those cuts will cause pain for those who are losing their water supplies. The cuts are really going to be felt by agriculture in the Central Arizona Project (CAP) service area, which is losing substantial amounts of its water supply. The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) and a few cities will also see cuts in tier 1. The reductions to tribal communities and municipal users will be fully mitigated with substitute water supplies or financial compensation. The Arizona Water Banking Authority, which stores water in underground aquifers for future recovery, will not be mitigated. 

One positive thing that has come out of the tier 1 process is that stakeholders have come together to create the Arizona Implementation Plan. The plan is a series of agreements to share the burden of the effects of the Colorado River reductions. It lays out a collaborative process in which higher-priority water users like cities, industry, and tribes put their water on the table to help agriculture. The mitigation plan also involves financial resources that the State of Arizona has provided to the ADWR and financial resources created by the CAP board. 

Unfortunately, the DCP cuts that are designed for tiers 1, 2, and 3 and the cuts that Mexico will take under the binational water scarcity plan are not enough. Lake Mead continues to decline. Mother Nature was not nice to us this past winter: We only had a 32 percent runoff from the Colorado River, which caused another drop at Lake Mead. 

This will also trigger adaptive management under the DCP. If the Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly 24‑month study projects the level of Lake Mead falling below an elevation of 1,030 feet, then Arizona, California, Nevada, and the federal government need to consult and take additional actions for Lake Mead. The elevation level of 1,030 feet was hit in August 2021, so we are in discussions about doing more. The three states have been meeting to discuss additional actions and to identify and resolve the many issues that may attach to those actions. Those additional actions could fall into two categories: additional mandatory reductions in use and additional voluntary conservation of water in Lake Mead through intentionally created surplus or system conservation. At this time, the states are focusing on the latter. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the Arizona Implementation Plan? 

Tom Buschatzke: The agricultural communities need to get wet water. Some of the cities that are losing some of their water are also going to get full mitigation. The GRIC may get a combination of water and money, in this case primarily from CAP. The GRIC and the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) are conserving some of their water. 

The wet water resources are coming out of Lake Mead. To offset the water that’s coming out of Lake Mead, we created 400,000 acre-feet of additional conserved water in the lake over and above what the DCP requires us to cut. The State of Arizona provided $30 million for that, and millions of dollars more came from a consortium of nongovernmental organizations that is funded in part by business entities. 

During the term of the DCP, groundwater withdrawal fees from the Pinal Active Management Area will go to help agricultural districts fund groundwater infrastructure and efficiency projects. Those fees will go to help agriculture and infrastructure and increase efficiencies. Part of the program to increase efficiency is also being funded directly by the state legislature to the tune of $40 million through two different processes established during the budget discussions of the last legislative session. The agricultural community is seeking additional funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also has a program that provides money to increase infrastructure and increase the efficiency of farming operations. 

Lake Mead on the Colorado River.

Despite all of this, the estimates we heard in 2018–2019 from the Pinal County agricultural entities, which mostly rely on CAP water, were that they would have to fallow 30–40 percent of their farmland when the tier 1 cuts hit. I don’t know yet what the actual numbers are going to be.

Another interesting thing about the implementation plan is that after 2022, it does not include any more wet water mitigation for agriculture. Agriculture will have to rely solely on the groundwater resources that it is legally entitled to use under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. 

On the municipal and tribal side, the mitigation steps down, reaching zero in the last year of the DCP. That was purposeful, because we don’t have the resources, but also because we need to move into a new paradigm in which cuts from water resource supplies like the Colorado River need to be dealt with by entities taking cuts without mitigation. Mitigation is not sustainable for us from either a financial or a water resources perspective. We didn’t want to do that for the DCP, because the expectation before we implemented the plan was that there would not be additional shortages before 2026. However, there were, because Mother Nature was not kind to us. 

The important message is that we are planning for a hotter and drier future in which our resources are going to be affected, and we need to start figuring out ways to live within our means until such time as we can increase the water supplies of our state. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your thoughts about legislation that would permit the CRIT to lease their water to other users in the state of Arizona? 

Tom Buschatzke: The state is currently neutral on that legislation if it gets adopted in Congress. We worked closely with the CRIT to craft that legislation. We also worked with the tribes and the federal government to craft agreements that ensure that the CRIT actually reduce their consumptive use through whatever program is adopted. The legislation does not allow the CRIT to market their water outside of the state or to market water that doesn’t have a use attached to it. Those are two important elements of the program. 

Generally, leasing water from the CRIT would be a great opportunity for the state to support economic vitality while also seeking other methods of augmentation and future water supplies. In the near term, however, while the CRIT’s legislation is important, we need to focus on Lake Mead and the system as we continue with the consultation revision of the DCP, because Lake Mead is falling quicker than we were expecting when the DCP was written. That’s more of a priority for the department.

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to other water users in the Colorado basin? 

Tom Buschatzke: My message is that we need to continue to collaborate to create resiliency and sustainability for the system. No one state or water user can solve this problem on its own. The challenges of climate change and a hotter and drier future will continue to increase, and flows in the Colorado River will continue to decrease. As we deal with these challenges, it’s important that the seven Colorado basin states and Mexico share the benefits and the risks of the system in an equitable manner. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to your state legislature? 

Tom Buschatzke: The state legislature approved the DCP back in 2019. It was critical, I believe, that the leadership of both parties in both houses were able to work with us from the ground up, and that all the stakeholders participated in creating the Arizona Implementation Plan. We also reconvened the lower basin DCP steering committee delegates to form the Arizona Reconsultation Committee, which will plan future management programs for the river. 

We also applaud the state legislature for creating a drought mitigation fund during the last legislative session. The fund has several elements, but the most important part funds projects that will augment our water supplies from sources outside of the state of Arizona. It also gave me $10 million to use for compensated conservation to help conserve water at Lake Mead. I think the drought mitigation fund sets the stage for augmentation and is a meaningful step forward. This really needs to be the focus for our future. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to Congress? 

Tom Buschatzke: Congress needs to understand how important the Colorado River is, not just to the seven states and Mexico but to the region and the nation. More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado River for their drinking water, and millions of acres of agriculture depend on it. From November to April, about 90 percent of the green vegetables that we eat in North America come from Yuma, where they are irrigated by Colorado River water. 

There are also a variety of other issues, including environmental ones, that affect our ability to reduce Colorado River water use. I’ll give you two examples. California has 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year, and we need it to participate in conservation efforts to protect Lake Mead. The Imperial Irrigation District, which uses 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year, has issues with the shrinking of the Salton Sea. The dust that comes off the seafloor as the water recedes is causing health issues. In order to conserve water in Lake Mead, we need to deal with the shrinking Salton Sea. Likewise, there are environmental issues in the Bay Delta, which is the headwaters of California’s State Water Project. Those issues have been boiling for over 20 years without resolution. They continue to make it harder for California to participate with us. Congress needs to understand that. 

Congress also needs to provide funding for future augmentation, including desalination and our ability to use our reclaimed water. It needs to understand that while we will follow all the environmental laws, we need a way to make these projects come to fruition. Streamlining and making the process simpler and quicker would be helpful. Lastly, it needs to be understood that watershed health is also a key element of management in all the states in the West. We need to attend to that, because the wildfires we’ve seen throughout the West are a clear example of how watershed health immediately affects us in lots of ways, including on the water resources side. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future? 

Tom Buschatzke: In the near term, we are going to continue to find ways to conserve water within our state. In the long term, we need to look at desalination facilities and at improving and expanding the use of reclaimed water. There is a binational desalination working group, for which I serve as the cochair of the U.S. delegation, that is looking at opportunities for desalination in the Sea of Cortez. In addition, the ADWR is partnering with CAP, the Southern Nevada Water District, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to look at using reclaimed water in the Los Angeles area that is currently being discharged into the ocean. It’s those kinds of partnerships that can create some new sources of water for us. 

In Arizona, we’re going to have to make tough policy choices about water management. We’ll have to make choices about which aspects of our lifestyle we can give up and which we will maintain. Arizona already does a lot of water reclamation, which has environmental benefits for the restoration of streams and riparian habitat. 

I am optimistic when I look at the progress we’ve made in the 40 years during which I’ve been working on these issues. In Arizona, there is a history of strong political leadership working collaboratively with stakeholders to find successful paths forward. I feel confident that we will figure out a way to solve the issues we face. We’ll make the hard choices we need to make to sustain our agriculture, our environment, and the lifestyle that people in the state of Arizona enjoy. 

Tom Buschatzke is director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He can be contacted at (602) 771‑8426.