PHOENIX — Former U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who died Thursday in Idaho, was a key player in Arizona’s passage of a landmark 1980 water law, acting in concert with then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt to force competing interests to the negotiating table.
At the private urging of Babbitt, Andrus threatened to block funding for the Central Arizona Project, a since-completed aqueduct project to deliver Colorado River water to farmers and cities in central and southern Arizona, if Arizona didn’t enact tough groundwater laws.
Babbitt used the leverage provided by the ultimatum by Andrus, a fellow Democrat, to strong-arm the Republican-led Legislature and interest groups into approving the groundwater law designed to balance pumping against aquifer recharge in the fast-growing state’s desert regions.
Cities, farmers and mines were at odds for decades over pumping rights and water management issues but “a well-rehearsed strategy” by Babbitt enlisted Andrus’ help and shocked the competing water interests “back to reality,” according to the state Department of Water Resources’ history of water management in Arizona.
“As I discussed it with Andrus, I agreed that it would be helpful for him to threaten to cancel the project. I never said that in public of course,” Babbitt said during a 2014 interview with The Associated Press.
The Legislature approved the proposed law, a compromise forged by a 25-member commission, without amendment during a seven-hour session.
Babbitt signed it into law on June 12, 1980, calling it “a statement that we care about our future and that we have the will to put the common good above group interests.”
Along with orchestrating Arizona’s entry into the federal Medicaid program, enactment of the groundwater law was one of Babbitt’s main achievements while Arizona governor. He was governor from 1978 to 1987.
Andrus served as Interior secretary during President Jimmy Carter’s one-term administration. Babbitt served as Interior secretary under President Bill Clinton.
Asked during the 2014 interview whether Andrus’ threat to block CAP funding was just a bluff, Babbitt said, “We’ll never know.”