1922-2016

Wes Steiner was an engineer who moved to Arizona to be the state water engineer and Executive Director of the Interstate Stream Commission. In 1980, he became the first Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, serving until 1985.

Wes Steiner: Arizona’s Water Czar

(The story below is built around a recorded interview)

You can’t talk about Arizona’s water history without talking about Wes Steiner, frequently referred to as Arizona’s Water Czar. But the man who drove much of the state’s innovative water management was actually a California native who started his career with the California Department of Water Resources.

He started as a junior civil engineer, quickly rising through the ranks and ultimately becoming the department’s expert on Colorado River water matters. He was there when Arizona sued California to get Central Arizona Project authorized and even sat next to Mike Ely, California’s attorney, when the case when to the US Supreme Court.

“Mark Wilmer was representing Arizona,” said Steiner. “And as I sat there and listened to the questions that the judges asked and the presentations that Ely made and the presentations that Mark Wilmer made, it became pretty obvious to me that California didn’t have a case, that clearly Arizona was right.”

So shortly after the Colorado River Basin Project Act was signed, Rich Johnson, Executive Director of the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission called to ask Steiner if he knew anyone who would be interested in being the state water engineer. Steiner stepped up, much to the surprise of Johnson. He ultimately became the first Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“I didn’t realize when I went over there that Arizona, water-wise, was way behind California. And I knew a lot of things that I should try to do to bring them, to bring them up to speed,” said Steiner. “You know, I planned to try and do those things and you don’t do things like that without engendering controversy and certainly I did a lot of that.”

Controversy was due to change that Steiner said had to happen. Groundwater basins were overdrawn. Water was being used twice as fast as it was being replenished. Five times as fast in Tucson. It would only be a matter of time before it would be prohibitively expensive to pump groundwater…if there was still water there.

The two most important items: construction of CAP and the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.

“I’m proud of the fact that I was able to get, convince a lot of people in Arizona that they needed to start making decisions on what, how they wanted to use the water that was available to them, how they wanted to develop their water instead of letting the federal agencies make all their decisions,” said Steiner.

Read Wes Steiner's Oral History Transcript
Listen to Wes Steiner's Interview