There’s an old saying in the arid West: Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting. There have always been plenty of fights over water. But in Arizona, recent major water measures have gained strong bipartisan agreement and brought together groups that typically square off: farmers, cities, environmentalists, developers, Republicans, Democrats.
The Legislature agreed to invest $1 billion to find new water supplies for the desert state, and in a separate measure, the state is asking the federal government to investigate diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi River for use in the West.
That bold plan alone tells you a lot about how big the stakes are for water. Arizona Rep. Tim Dunn (R), who sponsored the bill about the Mississippi River, knows firsthand. He’s a farmer in Yuma, a place known for growing most of the produce Americans eat in the winter.
Yuma farms get steady warmth and sunshine year-round—the Colorado River provides the water.
But a megadrought in the West threatens that water supply, on which more than 40 million people in seven states and Northern Mexico rely. Most of the Colorado’s water—75%—goes to agriculture and the rest to cities and towns for residential, business and industrial use. The water is banked in two key reservoirs: Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, and Lake Powell at Glen Canyon Dam. In recent years, dropping levels have put at risk electric power generation for millions of customers. If the level falls below the intake valve, no water could be sent downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The Interior Department is requiring these states to sharply curb their use of the river. In May, the states agreed to cut back with financial help from the federal government until 2026, when the states will have to shoulder more of the costs—and the water problem is expected to be worse.
Pumping water from out of state?
With all this looming, maybe it’s not so strange to think of pumping Mississippi floodwaters hundreds of miles, essentially uphill. Dunn isn’t the first person to think of it—it has been debated and studied over the years. But he decided to put the idea in motion after a visit to his brother’s farm in Mississippi.
“You know, we get 3 inches of rainfall a year here in Arizona,” Dunn says. “We go out to Mississippi and you can get 3 inches of rainfall in two hours”
He also noticed how often the family’s Mississippi farm land was under water.
“Between the over 10,000 acres that the collective family farms, there’s always someone that has backed up floodwater or damage from floods and rain,” he says.
Dunn figures siphoning off the floodwaters could help farms all along that river and in the West. And if it’s a pipe dream, it calls for a very large pipe: as much as 88 feet wide, one study says. He knows there are massive obstacles around cost, environmental impacts and water rights that he hopes a thorough study would answer. And he hears from plenty of people who think it’s crazy—and expensive.
“When you’re in a drought, though, and you need water—what is expensive?” Dunn says. “You’ve just got to start looking to the future.”
Indeed, the federal government has already spent billions of dollars over the years managing water in the West, and there was a time when it was considered a waste if a river ran to the sea without being diverted for productive use.
President John F. Kennedy toured Western dams in 1962 and urged planners to look far ahead.
“What are we going to do in 1962, beginning today, to determine what projects we should develop, so that by the end of this century, when there are 300 million people in the United States, that there will be available to them land and water and light and power and resources?” he asked an audience in Pueblo, Colo.
In that vein, Arizona Sen. Sine Kerr (R) sponsored the big bipartisan water measure in 2022 to look for future water supplies.
“We need to make sure that we leave no stone unturned and that we contemplate every idea,” Kerr says.
She says the drought and imminent cutbacks of Colorado River use got everyone to the table.
“You know, at first it was billed as the largest drought in 100 years. Well, now we’re up to, by historical record, the largest drought in maybe over 1,000 years. And so it was being in the midst of it and realizing for us to have a secure water future, we really do need to get serious,” Kerr says.
It’s not like Arizona has been frittering away its water. For a century, the state has made policy and built infrastructure to support water needs, using the Colorado River, groundwater and conservation. Most recently, the state prohibited growth on “raw desert” with no groundwater supply. And in 2019, it developed a bipartisan drought contingency plan for the Colorado River.
But there is always more to be done. Kerr proposed $1 billion over three years to explore things like moving and storing water in the state or looking outside its borders, particularly at the idea of using ocean water through desalination plants being considered in Texas and Sonora, Mexico. The money is a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of almost any big water project, but she says it creates a structure and seed money so the state can be responsive to new solutions.
Bipartisan support needed
Kerr says she and everyone involved knew it needed to have bipartisan support to demonstrate a unified approach to such a critical resource.
“That was a main goal at the onset, because we were doing such a historical thing for Arizona that we really wanted to make sure that it was bipartisan,” Kerr says. “And that doesn’t mean, you know, it was kumbaya all the way through.”
Just when Kerr thought everything was ready to go, there was a new wrinkle toward the end of the session. Democrats wanted conservation to be part of the mix. Then-Sen. Lisa Otondo (D) asked for $200 million to award grants for specific projects—things like tearing out residential lawns and swimming pools, or improving efficiency in farm operations.
“I really believe we need the buy-in from the public, and I believe many public members, both rural and urban, would like to begin to implement water conservation projects in their homes, perhaps their businesses, and they would really appreciate the support of the state to do so,” Otondo says. “Conservation efforts are extremely important and can help, although we cannot conserve our way out of the situation with water.”
Kerr says the conservation piece made sense, but it looked like a deal breaker because of the costs—until they agreed to use ARPA money for it. That ensured the support of Democrats.
Next steps won’t be simple. They never are with water policy. Water may still be for fighting as it gets harder and harder to come by. But Kerr believes this time, the very act of fighting over details was a good thing.
“It was just wonderful being part of the whole process in that collaboration with everyone at the table and across the aisle and several different agencies and working with the governor's office as well,” Kerr says. “I’ve learned to really embrace the challenging times, and I would say every time you get a better bill, after you’ve had those struggles and you’ve worked through the concerns, and that bill that comes out at the end really serves the people of Arizona even better.”
Kelley Griffin is a senior editor at NCSL and producer of the “Across the Aisle” podcast. Listen to the latest installment to learn more about the Arizona water issue.