Gov. Doug Ducey and state legislative leaders said Friday that approving a drought contingency plan before the end of January is their No. 1 priority during the annual session starting next week.
The Republican governor and the lawmakers spoke Friday to about 1,300 people at the yearly legislative outlook held by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry at the Arizona Biltmore Resort.
The contingency plan must pass the state Legislature this month or run the risk having federal water managers impose unspecified measures. The legislative session opens Monday with the governor's annual State of the State address.
"We have a sense of urgency and focus on Arizona's water situation," Ducey said. "It's pretty simple. Arizona and our neighboring states take more water from the Colorado River than Mother Nature gives back."
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
He said if Arizona lawmakers don't approve a plan for dealing with the drought by a Jan. 31 deadline "the federal government will be in charge of our water future."
"What could go wrong?" he joked, raising laughter from the crowd.
Colorado River water supports about 40 million people across the Southwest and millions of acres of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.
After almost two decades of drought and increasing demand, federal officials say there now is more than a 50 percent chance that the river's biggest reservoir, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, will fall low enough to trigger cutbacks in 2020 under agreements governing the system.
Democratic Rep. Charlene Fernandez, the House minority-elect from the state's southwestern agricultural corner of Yuma, acknowledged that "the water issue touches every part of Arizona." She said lawmakers must learn more about and deal with the problem before Jan. 31.
"Even though the federal government is shut down, that date is set in stone," Fernandez said.
Republican Sen. Karen Fann, president-elect of the upper chamber, added: "A lot of people's livelihoods are at stake here, so the tensions are obviously very high."
"We're all going to have to work together," Fann said of the different interests and industries that are reluctant to give up any of their current water allocation. "We're all going to have to give a little bit to make it work."
Fann also said funding for education would also be a top priority the year after an unprecedented teachers' walkout ended only after Ducey signed a package that included a series of raises that are to reach 20 percent by 2020.
"We made a lot of promises to education," she said, "and we're going to keep those promises."