Could Arizona’s new governor shift Colorado River politics?

There’s a historic reckoning in the Colorado River Basin — and Katie Hobbs is here to play hard ball.


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Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs’ new water regime

The newly elected Democrat brings something that’s long been absent in Arizona water politics: common sense.

Fights are brewing over the Colorado River and how to share what’s left of its over-allocated acre-feet. But now Arizona has a new water sheriff in town: Gov. Katie Hobbs. Although we are only a month into the Democrat’s tenure, she appears to represent a paradigm shift when it comes to water in the arid West. Hobbs is talking about reducing demand rather than trying to increase the water supply, which may sound like common sense, but in the Western U.S. is truly revolutionary.

First, a bit of historical context: In 1880, the federal government’s Public Lands Commissions held hearings to get public input about how to dole out Western lands. One of the things they discussed was basically human-caused climate change. Really!

There was a serious, if pseudo-scientific, theory that plowing up the sod, planting trees, building and operating railroads and even constructing telegraph lines would cause more rain to fall. The evidence for this? Precipitation was greater in the arid West between 1869 and 1879 than it had been the previous decade. Which was true, but entirely irrelevant. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time water folks would rely on a short period of record-keeping to make consequential conclusions regarding the climate and water supplies.

The Glen Canyon Dam, near Page, Arizona, under construction here in 1963, dammed the Colorado River to create Lake Powell. At the time, the dam’s major purpose was to store water for future use and to provide hydroelectric power to the growing West.

The “rain follows the plow” proponents wielded the axiom for political and land-use reasons, which I won’t go into now except to say that many of them had “real estate speculator” somewhere in their biographies. When that theory was debunked, “pluviculturists” — or rainmakers — responded with a new one: detonating balloon-lifted explosives in the sky to blast more moisture from the clouds. They were working from the notion — first forwarded by the Greek philosopher Plutarch and purportedly demonstrated during the American Civil War — that great battles created more rain.

While water officials and politicians may no longer insist that growth and development or airborne explosions actually create more rainfall, they often act as if they do. It’s been common knowledge since the 1940s, for example, that the Colorado River doesn’t hold as much water as the Colorado River Compact proposed to divvy up, and yet the states have continued to hold out hope that if they just kept building subdivisions and planting alfalfa, the water would somehow follow. Officials build more dams and pipelines to “augment” water supplies, even though doing so follows the same logic that spending your cash freely or stuffing it under the mattress will somehow create more money. (It doesn’t. I’ve tried).

These days, the rain-follows-the-plow approach might be called the supply-side method: You try to increase the water supply rather than decrease demand. And just as was the case during the 19th century, the aim is to allow development and growth to continue unhindered without having to fret about the resource drying up.

Traditionally, Arizona’s leaders have been among the most enthusiastic adherents of this school of thought, because if they were to accept that there is a hard limit to supplies, they might have to limit residential growth, golf courses, or thirsty crops such as alfalfa and cotton. The state, for example, continues to allow groundwater pumping to go unregulated in many areas, never mind that it’s causing wells to dry up and huge swaths of land to sink. Hobbs’ opponent in last year’s election, Kari Lake, supported a long-standing pipedream to ship Mississippi River water to the arid state. And Doug Ducey, Hobbs’ predecessor, wanted to fork out $5 billion to build an energy-guzzling desalination plant in Mexico that would cost about $1 billion per year to operate.

On a smaller scale, consider the case of Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated smattering of homes on big lots in Maricopa County, Arizona. Rio Verde has no municipal water service, so the residents either rely on private or shared wells, or they haul their water in by truck. For years, the water trucks have filled up in neighboring Scottsdale, but Scottsdale, with its own water needs to consider, has long warned that the practice couldn’t continue. Now, with the Colorado River cutbacks in effect, Scottsdale has turned off Rio Verde’s taps. Since then, the water-haulers have had to go farther afield, which is more costly. One family of four told the Washington Post that their $380-per-month water bill will likely jump to $1,340 per month.

Yet Maricopa County continues to issue building permits even as it shot down an attempt by Rio Verde residents to form their own water district to alleviate the issue. (The county said it didn’t want to infringe on residents’ freedom. Freedom to do what? Shrivel up and blow away?)

Larger developments in selected parts of the state must prove they have a 100-year supply of water before proceeding. But when a state study found that planned developments in the rapidly growing area west of Phoenix would come up more than a trillion gallons short, the Ducey administration chose to keep the findings under wraps.

Governor Katie Hobbs speaks at the 2023 Converge Tech Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona on Feb. 8, 2023.

Enter Hobbs, who not only came out swinging during her first weeks in office, but appears largely to have abandoned her predecessors’ supply-side, the rain-will-follow-the-housing development approach. In her State of the State speech in January, Hobbs:

  • Acknowledged that the crisis will “likely get worse before it gets better.”

  • Stressed the need for collaboration and transparency, then walked the talk by releasing the “Lower Hassayampa Sub-Basin Groundwater Model,” saying: “This report unequivocally shows that we have to act now, or this will only be the first new area that faces this kind of shortage. … I do not understand, and do not in any way agree with, my predecessor choosing to keep this report from the public and from members of this Legislature. However, my decision to release this report signals how I plan to tackle our water issues openly and directly.”

  • Said there is no “silver bullet” solution to the current water challenges, a dig at desalination, Mississippi River pipelines, and trying to wage war or blow things up to increase rainfall.

  • And, perhaps most significantly, she launched a process to expand and strengthen groundwater regulation to stop what she called “water poaching”: “We must take these actions today because in many parts of our state … a new water user can move in, dig a well, and pump as much water as possible — even if it dries up the community’s aquifer. This is why you see a Saudi Arabian conglomerate pumping local groundwater nearly unchecked in La Paz County today, to grow water-intensive crops and send them to the other side of the planet.”

It’s a good start. But is it too late?

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

Once upon a time, High Country News was one of the only media outlets doing in-depth coverage of the Colorado River and its issues. Consider classics like Matt Jenkins’ award-winning “Squeezing Water from a Stone from 2005, or any of his other Western water-wonk pieces.

But now that the water source for some 40 million folks and a good portion of the nation’s food is in danger, the national media are paying a lot more attention to the Colorado River and related issues. Hell, Elizabeth Kolbert even came and toured Lake Powell for The New Yorker. We welcome the extra coverage, even if some of it is superficial or sensationalist. Meanwhile, we’ll keep churning out Western water material as well. Today we’d like to spotlight some of the most illuminating recent coverage of the crisis:

Craig Childs, one of the West’s finest writers on water (and professional bull riding, among other topics) does it again with “Glen Canyon Revealed” in the latest edition of HCN. His is a finely crafted chronicle of his love-hate relationship with Lake Powell since early childhood, when his parents took him camping there. His fondness for the surreal mixture of stagnant water and sensuous stone grows as the reservoir recedes, revealing long-inundated wonders that he once knew only through others’ memories. The story’s accompanied by Elliot Ross’ stunning images. | High Country News

Wanna know more about the Rio Verde Foothills development (mentioned above) and how Arizona’s lax regulations led to the current crisis? Then check out longtime HCN contributor Sarah Tory’s latest, a conversation with Susanna Eden, the assistant director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. | High Country News 

I’ve probably said this before, but if you’re not reading Ian James’ work for the Los Angeles Times (and previously for the Arizona Republic) then you’re not getting the whole story on the Colorado River and water in the West. James and his LA Times colleagues recently completed a wonderful series, “Colorado River in Crisis,” that includes words, images, podcasts and video. It’s a must. | Los Angeles Times

Veteran Arizona Daily Star reporter Tony Davis has been on the Colorado River beat almost as long as High Country News has. In fact, he’s written a number of water stories for HCN over the years. And now he brings his vast knowledge and experience to recent news about the lifeline river and all the politics and plans around it. He recently completed his own in-depth series for the Star, “Colorado River Reckoning: Not Enough Water.” Read the series, then get the story behind the story with these video interviews with Davis. | Arizona Daily Star

We want to hear from you!

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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