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Foreword to Jack's Biography

By Bruce Babbitt
Former Governor of Arizona and U.S. Secretary of the Interior

Arizona water management was a chaotic jumble of mismatched and unworkable parts when Jack Pfister was named General Manager of Salt River Project in 1976. The structure was poised to collapse.

Jack played a key role in rebuilding and modernizing how the state handles water. In the process, he emerged as Arizona’s foremost public citizen.

The state’s water challenge became a crisis in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter withdrew federal support for Orme Dam, the principal flood-control feature of the Central Arizona Project, then under construction. And by that time, the Arizona Supreme Court, never a voice of clarity on water issues, had arrived on the scene with a series of decisions upending our antiquated groundwater laws.

Then, in 1978, a three-year cycle of rainstorms began to overwhelm the storage dams on the Salt River above Phoenix. Flood crests poured through Central Phoenix again and again, cutting the city in two.

Salt River Project stood squarely in the intersection of these accelerating events. From its beginning as the first big, successful federal reclamation project, SRP had come to dominate Arizona water management. Yet across the years, as it promoted the interests of its agricultural constituency, it gradually lost touch with the needs of Arizona’s emerging urban economy.

Jack took leadership of Salt River Project at the worst of times, or perhaps at exactly the right time to begin a career of reshaping both that institution and Arizona’s water- resource future. And it began with Orme Dam.

President Carter’s decision to cancel Orme Dam triggered a near-hysterical reaction from the Arizona Congressional delegation and editorial writers at the Arizona Republic. Opponents of the dam, however, including the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, stood firm in opposition, steadily gaining allies both in Arizona and in Washington.

As the controversy escalated, without an obvious resolution in sight, I appointed a seventeen-member committee that included both supporters and opponents, and charged it to search for a consensus solution. After more than two years of public hearings, extensive information outreach, and technical studies led by the Bureau of Reclamation, the committee reached a nearly unanimous conclusion: Orme Dam was not necessary. An alternative that came to be known as Plan 6 would be adequate for both water storage and flood control.

In the fall of 1981, as the committee began to coalesce in favor of Plan 6, Jack then emerged from the background to release a letter from Salt River Project addressed to the committee. He began by reiterating SRP’s support for Orme Dam, clearly intended to keep the peace with the pro-dam farmers who dominated his board of directors.

However, he then proceeded to analyze the other alternatives formulated by the Bureau of Reclamation in a manner that effectively undercut, indeed demolished, the case he had just made for Orme Dam as the non-negotiable establishment preference.

Shortly thereafter, the committee voted to drop Orme Dam in favor of Plan 6. The old guard struck back, and the political fight commenced. Jack was out on a limb, but not about to back away.

He then persuaded me to accompany him to Washington to brief members of the Arizona delegation. We were greeted as interlopers with no business questioning their wisdom.

As we left town, I suggested we should take on the delegation in public. Jack shrugged, unperturbed, and responded “Governor, that would not be a good idea. No need to get emotional. We have the facts.” As usual, it was good advice. In due course, the Congressional delegation came around, Arizona came together, and today Plan 6 has been largely implemented. The Salt River dams have been upgraded to modern flood control standards, and the Central Arizona Project is complete.

In the meantime, another piece of our water management structure had collapsed. The overdrafting of our groundwater basins had been a controversial issue for half a century. By the late 1970s, it had reached a crisis point as the result of court decisions described in this book. Successive legislative committees and study groups ended in deadlock. Finally, I was invited to give it a try.

I gathered together yet another committee. Consulting with Jack, I decided on a different approach from the highly public Plan 6 process. We would invite just a small group of establishment insiders, representing the three warring factions: cities, the mining industry and agriculture. We would meet in private outside the Capitol, and participants would agree not to talk in public or to the press. It was time for deal-making, and transparency and public process went out the window.

The outcome of those negotiations, the dramatic enactment of the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 is an oft-told story. Less appreciated is how Jack Pfister managed to make it possible.

Meaningful groundwater management would be a direct challenge to the primacy of Salt River Project, something his board would be unwilling to support. Jack would have to play a hidden hand, first by staying away from the table, instead sending a trusted member of his staff. And second by encouraging me to keep other farm representatives out of the process, so as to avoid stirring up further controversy. To save agriculture, we had to shut their leaders out.

With the process arranged this way, it was then possible for Jack to begin making concessions, capably described in this book, that would be necessary to reach agreement, including the creation of a state Department of Water Resources to administer the resulting regulatory system. The Groundwater Management Act of 1980 did little for Jack’s standing at Salt River Project, but in the long run, it has worked to the immense benefit of all Arizonans, including the agricultural constituency of SRP. It was from these two episodes, the Orme Dam controversy and passage of the groundwater code, that Jack became Arizona’s chief consensus builder and civic activist.

There was more to come, including contentious negotiations over the state’s share of the bill for the Central Arizona Project and dam safety, the passage of a strong water-quality law that also created a state Department of Environmental Quality, and the establishment of a legal framework for groundwater-recharge programs.

As these projects moved forward, my partnership with Jack came full circle as he assumed public leadership and moved to the head of the table to lead negotiations through the various hybrid committees we created.

During our time together, we worked together on many other matters, described in engaging detail in the following pages. This book is much more than a biography. It is a penetrating look at the art of transformative leadership, of how one person can change the course of public events, in the process becoming the most productive and influential public citizen of his generation.

 —Bruce Babbitt, May 2015