Arizona is at a crossroads. Supplies of water from the Colorado River––40% of the water supply for Central Arizona cities and agriculture––are in jeopardy because of chronic overuse. Arizona has taken important interim measures to keep more water in Lake Mead and forestall the impacts of shortage, but longer-term action is needed. The path of business-as-usual will lead Arizona to large-scale water shortages and severe impacts to residents, the economy, and the environment. A different path of innovation and collaboration will lead Arizona to a stable Colorado River supply that enables communities to maintain a high quality of life, our agricultural heritage to continue, and rivers, lakes and wildlife to thrive. We should choose this path.
On January 19, 2017, Western Resource Advocates released new analysis in a report titled “Arizona’s Water Future: Colorado River Shortage, Innovative Solutions, and Living Well with Less,” that shows how Central Arizona’s cities, suburban growth in significant areas, and agriculture face substantial cuts to Colorado River water supplies as Lake Mead levels continue to fall. If Lake Mead drops to an elevation of 1,075 feet, Arizona will lose access to 320,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water; there is a 50% probability of this happening in 2018. 320,000 acre-feet is enough water to meet the annual needs of more than 600,000 Arizona families!
Who is affected first when Arizona loses this water? Some Central Arizona new suburban development, groundwater banking used for drought protection, and productive central Arizona agriculture will all face cutbacks. If Lake Mead levels continue to fall to 1,050 feet, or even as low as 1,025 feet – not out of the question without significant changes to water management – central Arizona farmers will lose all access to Colorado River water supplies, and even major cities’ Colorado River water supplies could be cut. This would have devastating effects on Arizona’s agricultural economy, and water rates would certainly go up for residents of Phoenix and Tucson.
The good news is that this dire scenario can be avoided. Arizona water managers have already taken important actions to prevent Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels, but more action is needed to put in place long-term solutions that can withstand the test of time. Voluntary agreements with water users to leave water in Lake Mead and the on-going three-state “Drought Contingency Plan” discussions with California and Nevada are important – and must be implemented to deal with drought in the short term. But we cannot continue to put Band-Aids on an ill patient, while failing to address the underlying illness. More must be done to address the chronic overuse of Colorado River water. Fortunately, Arizona’s water leaders recognize the need for long-term solutions, and our report lays out a number of collaborative solutions that can build upon Arizona’s history of innovation to help solve the problem.
Chief among our seven solutions are for:
- Water providers and farmersto implement ‘next generation’ water efficiency programs;
- The Central Arizona Project to support greater participation by cities in programs to stabilize Lake Mead levels; and
- The Central Arizona Project and Arizona Department of Water Resources to support increasing numbers of innovative water-sharing arrangements between cities, agriculture and other water users.
At the end of the day, all of us as Colorado River water users are in this together. Western Resource Advocates is looking forward to working with a wide variety of stakeholders in Arizona to implement the proactive steps that can keep Arizona’s Colorado River supplies stable, and ensure there’s a sustainable water supply, even if it’s a little less, for the benefit of both current and future generations.