It’s complicated and multi-faceted and one of the most important issues that Arizona and our region faces: Water.
There is a large array of longstanding pacts and agreements on who gets how much water, but to understand all of the nuance involved in this topic, you need someone who has been dialed into the issue for years. For Valley Partnership, that person is its President and CEO Cheryl Lombard. The group hired Lombard in 2015 after she spent 10 years as the government relations director for the Nature Conservancy. Her background and knowledge on the issue is what made her a perfect hire at the time.
“I was working on the water issue there and it is an important part of growth in our state and really in the entire west,” Lombard said. “So when I transitioned over to Valley Partnership, even during my interview process, this was something we talked about because of my expertise on this issue and wanting to move into this space because, obviously, it was a potential impediment to the success of the development industry.”
The issue of water availability and accessibility is something that has come to the forefront in the past decade, as Arizona and all of the states in the Colorado River Basin are in the midst of a 19-year drought.
Agreements on how to deal with a drop in water levels in the reservoirs of the Colorado River (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) have been in the works since 2007. In late April, Arizona delegates Rep. Raul Grijalva and Sen. Martha McSally led the way in the passage of H.R. 2030, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), which President Donald Trump signed into law.
Valley Partnership, with its mission to advocate for responsible development in Arizona, urged the approval of the DCP at every step to ensure that the development community was not unfairly affected by any potential cutbacks in water allotments.
“Valley Partnership always has a very tough balance,” said Valley Partnership board of directors member Ben Graff, a land use and zoning attorney for Quarles & Brady. “We have such a wide variety of membership — from homebuilders, architects, engineers, developers, land owners — sometimes an issue as complicated as the DCP, it can be difficult to get a consensus, and Cheryl did just an unbelievable job.”
Graff, who was elected to the Central Arizona Project board in 2016, is just one of many Valley Partnership members who are actively involved in setting water policies for the state.
“I ended up joining the board (of CAP) at a very tumultuous, but also a very key time in Arizona water policy,” Graff said. “I certainly can’t say the work started with me in 2016 because there were plenty of things in the works, certainly from Day 1 that has been one of the largest focuses of the CAP board and also the governor’s office and Arizona Department of Water Resources.”
Valley Partnership has worked very hard to keep its membership informed on the DCP and what it would mean to the development community. In January, the Valley Partnership Friday Morning Breakfast featured some of the most influential leaders in Arizona on this topic, including Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“All of our folks are tied up in securing a 100-year water supply, so they’re very familiar with the issue,” Lombard said. “I think what was new was the discussion tied around the Colorado River. That’s new to all of us. We, meaning Valley Partnership, have been talking about this for a while, meaning it’s in our strategic plan, so they were ready, but it’s a complicated issue with a lot of nomenclature, so there was a lot of education from that aspect.”
Buschatzke was pivotal in getting the DCP approved by all of the states in the Colorado River Basin (Arizona, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming). Without the approval of all of the states, the DCP would not have been sent to Congress and the federal government would have potentially stepped in.
Getting California to agree to the DCP was the biggest trick, because there were no laws that required California to reduce its water allotment, as that state has first water rights.
“The secretary of the interior within the federal government has the ability, under the premise of the health of the Colorado River, to state that the lowering health of the river has gotten to such a point that he is going to step in and reallocate that water as he sees fit,” Graff said. “California knows that under that scenario they couldn’t possibly get as good of a deal as was passed through Congress now.”
Both Lombard and Graff have hands-on approaches to staying on top of this issue. In addition to being appointed to the Arizona DCP Steering Committee, Lombard has been on the Governor’s Augmentation Council since she joined Valley Partnership. That group works on long-term water solutions. She also takes part in committees and discussion groups and is in constant contact with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, CAP, Salt River Project, the tribal leaders in Arizona and municipal leaders.
“I don’t believe in 2015 Valley Partnership would have necessarily been invited to the table on DCP,” Graff said. “But fast forward to 2017 through 2019, I can guarantee you that they were one of the first calls to take part in the discussion among stakeholder groups.
“There has been a shift in the advocacy and clout of the organization and involvement. I’ve been very, very happy to see that, especially as a new member of the board.”
Another issue related to water that has gotten a lot of attention from Valley Partnership members is the problems in San Tan Valley with Johnson Utilities. The small company provides water and sewer services to residents of a 160-square mile area of Pinal County. After severe issues with maintenance and upkeep of the water and sewer infrastructure, state regulators stripped control of the company from Johnson Utilities and put EPCOR USA in charge of operations.
New construction in the Johnson Utilities service area was stopped, as EPCOR could not guarantee water and sewer service to new homes due to the condition of the system in place.
“Brookfield Residential owns a community and is developing a community inside Johnson Utilities’ service area, so we were impacted by the challenges that started to become public,” said Brad Chelton, vice president for Brookfield Residential Properties and a member of the Valley Partnership Board of Directors. “Myself and Cheryl and a few others who are on the board got together and engaged with Johnson Utilities and engaged with the Arizona Corporation Commission and also EPCOR, to really try to find the most common sense solution that was available.”
So far, no long-term solution has been reached, as EPCOR continues to work on bringing the Johnson Utilities infrastructure up to date. One potential solution that Valley Partnership and EPCOR agreed to was linking up to Queen Creek’s municipal water and sewer system.
“This isn’t about water, per se. There’s plenty of water available in the area,” Chelton said. “The problem is about the infrastructure. The infrastructure hasn’t been maintained or it hasn’t been constructed to keep up with the pace of development.”