Drought: Five Things You Need To Know About This Rainy Winter

By Warren Tenney

Many people are wondering what this rainy, snowy winter means for Arizona after more than two decades of drought. Here are five things we know right now.

1. It’s raining and snowing in the right places. So far, it has been raining and snowing in locations that have the potential to increase water in two major reservoirs, Roosevelt Lake and Lake Mead. These reservoirs are key to drinking water supplies for the majority of Arizona’s population.

  • Lake Mead relies on runoff from snow pack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, primarily from two main tributaries: the Green River in southwestern Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River in western Colorado. December snowpack in the Colorado River Basin has ranged from 50 percent to three times above normal.  The result of this above normal precipitation will likely boost the reservoir levels of Lake Mead.
  • Roosevelt Lake relies on rain and snow in the watershed that feeds the Salt River. This watershed reaches into the high country northeast of Phoenix. So far, the watershed has received about 45 percent more precipitation than normal. As of January 25th, 211,000 acre-feet of water had flowed into Roosevelt Lake. (One acre-foot of water is enough to serve three average Arizona households for a year.)

2. This is a good start. Weather in February and March must remain cold and wet to hold and increase the gains and potential gains in both reservoirs. Water resource managers are pleased with rain but prefer snow accompanied by extended weeks of cold temperatures. Low temperatures keep the snow on the ground longer, which stops the water in the ground from evaporating and helps to reduce the threat of summer wildfires. The slow flow from melting snow also delivers cleaner water and is easier to manage in a water delivery system. So while it has already been a good winter, we will have to wait until April to know if it has been a great season.

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This is a map of the  watershed where the springs, creeks and rivers originate that feed into Roosevelt Lake, a key drinking water reservoir for the Phoenix Metro area.

3. The drought is not over. Research shows that drought cycles and wet cycles in Arizona run 20 to 30 years. A drought cycle has fewer wet years than dry and a wet cycle has a greater number of above average rainy years. The current record-breaking drought cycle began around 1996. The last six years have been the driest on record in the Salt and Verde rivers’ watersheds. If the weather follows historical trends, the current drought could be coming to a close within the next several years, but there’s no certainty and it does not factor in climate change. It would take a few years of greater than average snow and rain to begin to heal the wounds left by the current drought. This includes helping to replenish local aquifers used to back up water available in dams and reservoirs. Plus, two or three years of well above-average precipitation on the watersheds that feed the Salt and Verde rivers would help to re-establish depleted wildlife, such as quail and deer. That much precipitation would help to restore overgrazed grasslands and begin to create a healthier forest, with trees not as susceptible to diseases and bark beetle infestation.

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4. AMWUA cities are built for drought. Sunshine is the norm in Central Arizona and rain is an event. We have never denied that we live in an arid part of the country and we plan for drought cycles. AMWUA cities save water underground for future use, keep leaks within their water distribution systems to some of the lowest rates in the country, and re-use 99 percent of their wastewater. Salt River Project (SRP) operates the system of reservoirs and canals that store water from the Salt and Verde rivers. After a rare rainy year in 2010, SRP has faced six dry years on the rivers’ watersheds. Despite record low precipitation, Roosevelt Lake has remained half full and SRP has been able to fill water orders for farmers, industries and cities. SRP was forced to limit water orders by 33 percent in 2002, the driest year in the Southwest in 1,200 years. That year, the SRP system was only 25 percent full and Roosevelt Lake alone was down to 10 percent full. It was the first reduction since the 1950s.

Central Arizona Project (CAP) operates the canal that brings Colorado River water released from Lake Mead to Arizona. CAP has not yet had to reduce water supplies due to a Colorado River shortage. The state’s cities, farmers and industries currently are working together to maintain and increase the level of water stored in Lake Mead and prevent a water shortage declaration next year. The recent increase in winter precipitation and snowpack in the Colorado River Basin decreases the chances that a shortage would be declared in 2018. So, while we regularly face metrological droughts, our water supply droughts are rare.

5. You can make the rain count. Homeowners, apartment managers and businesses make a contribution to our reservoirs when they turn off their irrigation systems and auto-fills on their pools each time it rains. More homeowners and communities also are harvesting the rain by contouring their landscapes to hold storm runoff. Swales built around trees and plants help rainwater stay in place longer so the water soaks deep into the landscape and stays available to plants and trees longer. All of this reduces the need to irrigate and the demand on city water supplies, which in turn saves more drinking water for drinking.

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit http://www.amwua.org. 

 

Lawmakers Get Answer To Arizona’s Biggest Water Question

By Warren Tenney

When I meet people and they find out I work in water, they always ask me this question: When are we going to run out of water? Arizona legislators – particularly those who were just elected – have the same concerns and questions about the state’s water supplies. Many of these lawmakers from both urban and rural communities attended AMWUA’s legislative forum on December 7th to get answers. AMWUA assembled leaders from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Central Arizona Project, Salt River Project and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry to make sure legislators have the latest and best information. Here’s some of what the legislators learned.

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The crowd begins to gather at the Desert Botanical Garden for the AMWUA legislative forum.

Arizona is one of the most successful states in the country at managing its water resources. We have never shied away from the fact that we live in an arid place.  Since our water supply is limited, out of necessity we have managed it very well by wringing out every drop. Despite a 17-year drought, Arizona is not in a water crisis and the state has planned for extended drought. Much of the credit goes to Arizona’s forward-thinking leaders who passed the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. Among other things, this law regulates wells in the state’s most populous areas, requires a 100-year assured water supply before development, and helps to save water in the state’s aquifers for the future. The Act also motivated AMWUA to create a regional water conservation program.  As a result of this regional effort and municipal water conservation programs, water demand in the Valley is the same today as the late 1980s despite a rapid increase in population. AMWUA member cities want to ensure the strong foundation built by the Groundwater Management Act is always strengthened by new legislation and never—intentionally or unintentionally—weakened.

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I talk with City of Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams, president of AMWUA’s Board, who called the forum to order.

Despite our successes, there are challenges ahead for us to overcome. Valley cities are supplied mainly with water from the Colorado, Salt and Verde rivers. These rivers are experiencing drought that is affecting state water supplies. For example, flows in the Salt and Verde rivers are down by 35 percent. The rivers are suffering from over-pumping in rural areas not regulated by the Groundwater Management Act and from catastrophic wildfires in overgrown forests where the rivers’ originate.  Furthermore, the AMWUA cities also receive almost 40 percent of their water from Lake Mead, a reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The water level in Lake Mead determines if and when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior will declare an official Colorado River water shortage. Without continued conservation efforts, there is a 50 percent chance of a shortage declaration in 2018, which would reduce Arizona’s available supply.

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Arizona Chamber’s Glenn Hamer said water is a top issue for the Chamber.

At the forum, the Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Thomas Buschatzke, assured legislators the state is working with cities, farmers, industries and Native American communities to reach an agreement to keep more water in Lake Mead and prevent a shortage declaration. If a comprehensive agreement can be reached in time, Director Buschatzke said he would present the plan to state lawmakers for their approval during the 2017 legislative session. A successful Arizona plan is key to Nevada and California agreeing to plans that would protect Lake Mead on a larger scale.

Arizona Chamber CEO Glenn Hamer told lawmakers that he supports Director Buschatzke’s efforts. He also called for the same kind of arduous negotiations and political will that created the 1980 Groundwater Management Act—this time to create a plan that protects our current water supplies in all three rivers.

“We may be at the point where we’re going to have to come together in a bipartisan fashion to protect the state,” Mr. Hamer told the forum. He named water as one of the Chamber’s top three issues. “Water security means economic security,” Mr. Hamer said.

The AMWUA cities have worked hard to help Arizona remain a leader in water management. As a result, the Valley has grown from a dusty outpost into a major economic growth center. But wise water management isn’t just for the AMWUA cities.  Water is a statewide concern.  Rivers and aquifers do not recognize political boundaries. What happens in one part of the state can have a ripple effect in other parts. We are in this together, whether we reside in urban or rural Arizona and whatever our political affiliations.

So here’s the answer to that pervasive question from all water users, whether or not they have the power to make laws. When will Arizona run out of water? We will run out of water when we stop planning, managing, and investing in it.

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Water: A Conversation With Chandler Councilmember Rick Heumann

By Warren Tenney

When City of Chandler Councilmember Rick Heumann joined the AMWUA Board of Directors six years ago he knew this about water: “I drank it.” He knew Chandler had a water treatment plant and a wastewater treatment plant – and that he had been assigned to the board of an important regional water agency. When it came to water management, Mr. Heumann called himself a blank slate – but he wasn’t really. The business executive arrived on the AMWUA board without much water knowledge but with two convictions that make up the core of water management: you need a plan today to reach your goals in 20 or 30 years and successful plans require collaboration. Mr. Heumann also had insights gained from 20 years of community service, including sitting on Chandler’s Planning and Zoning Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission. The Councilmember, who ended up serving as president of the AMWUA Board, will attend his last meeting in December, so we sat down and talked to him about water.

The Surprises: Mr. Heumann worked to understand the complexities of the Central Arizona Project, the 360-mile canal that brings Colorado River water to the Phoenix Metro area and Tucson. He had to learn about the condition of the nation’s largest reservoir known as Lake Mead, the laws that allowed cities, Native American communities and small-heumannfarmers to share Colorado River water, the debt owed to the federal government for building the canal, and the energy needed from the coal-burning Navajo Generating Station (NGS) to lift the water uphill. “Why do you need all that power?” was Mr. Heumann’s first thought. “Just stick the canal there and it will flow down hill over hundreds of miles,” he now recalls. “Well, it’s not downhill it’s uphill, too. NGS is where the power comes from.” Mr. Heumann knows the NGS has been under scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency, but without it delivery of Colorado River water would stop. “You just can’t shut it down. You can’t build enough solar power to generate the power to move water uphill. But what’s the comprehensive approach over the next ten years?  Maybe we can use less of NGS, reduce the need for that by using wind, or nuclear, or solar or clean coal.”

The Big Question: There is one question about water that Councilmember Heumann gets most often: Are we going to run out of water? “When I talk about water, whether it’s a council meeting, a subcommittee meeting or chamber meeting, that’s one of the big things that come up. People read snippets and little tidbits of things and hear all the doom and gloom.” Mr. Heumann said there are two things people need to know: “One is that there is not an abundance of water, but there’s enough water if we use it right.” Small things people do add up, even if it’s not letting the water run when brushing your teeth or shaving or using a broom instead of a hose to regularly clean your driveway or patio. “It’s a restaurant not serving water unless you ask for water. How much does that save? Well, you know what, that glass of water may be 8 ounces, but if your restaurant serves 200 people a day that’s 1,600 ounces. Think how many gallons were wasted. Of those 200 customers, did 50 of them drink it? That’s 150 people you didn’t serve water to and all the dishwashing that goes along with it. So you start doing those incremental things.”

 

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The Progress: Councilmember Heumann is well aware it will take more than incremental conservation for Arizona to have enough water to thrive. He helped Chandler to become the first city in the state to pass a policy that ties land use to the city’s 100-year water supply. Here’s how it works: If Chandler residents benefit from a new high-water-use commercial development, such as providing a lot of jobs, the City will provide the new development with water. If a development uses a great deal of water but provides only a few jobs, such as a data center, it must buy its water on the open market. The policy’s goal is to ensure that once Chandler’s entire available land is developed, the last people to buy homes or build businesses still will have a 100-year supply of water. “Some people get offended and say, ‘You should let people do whatever they want.’ Well, no. Chandler has 64 square miles. When that last guy wants to build his subdivision or his business he has to have that water.” Mr. Heumann has only one regret about the policy: It should have been in place 20 years ago. “What I hope is that cities like Goodyear and Gila Bend and Buckeye, high-growth cities, like Gilbert, that they really take a look at this policy. Because it’s not a policy designed to say you can’t have water. It’s a policy designed to say we’ve allocated our water resources, we know how much we have now, we know our 100 year supply.”

The Future: In the six years Mr. Heumann has been on the AMWUA Board he has watched AMWUA’s role change. “It has changed and should change to really a marketing arm.  I think it’s really important our cities are educating our citizens about conservation, on the right way to use water, where it comes from, thinking for the long term. Your grandkids are going to live here. Are they going to live here in a sustainable manner?” He wants to see the successful water management practices developed by AMWUA cities shared with non-member cities, such as Prescott and Payson. Mr. Heumann also sees a need for AMWUA and others to educate members of the Arizona Legislature about water so they know how to balance the state’s water resources with demands for new development, particularly on the outskirts of the Valley and in rural areas where water tables are dropping from over pumping from too many wells. “The Legislature needs to understand we (AMWUA) represent 3.5 million people. This is about sustainability, so my kids and grandkids will be able to live here. The legislators need to get out in the water to fully understand what really drives the lifeblood of the valley and understand it isn’t just about what we do today. What we do today affects us long term. You’ve got to think about a plan.”

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

This Year’s Least Known Election Is One Of The Most Important

cap_canal

By Warren Tenney

Various races are competing for your attention on the ballot this election season. You know the high profile races for President of the United States, the U.S. Congress and the State Legislature. Yet, near the bottom of your ballot is one of the most important races – one that will directly impact you and your water. It is the election of five new members to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board of Directors. If you are wondering what that is, you are not alone.

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The Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) is the official legal name of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), the 336-mile canal that delivrs Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson. The CAWCD Board of Directors is responsible for maintaining the more than 30-year-old CAP canal. Board members also set rates charged to its customers (including Valley cities), determine the taxes you pay to finance the CAP system, and establish policies to manage CAP water.

The CAWCD Board is a 15-member board with 10 elected from Maricopa County, four elected from Pima County, and one from Pinal County.  This year, Maricopa County voters will elect five of the Board positions. You are electing them to a six-year term, the same as for U.S. Senate. It’s not a high-profile race, so you may have to do a little more homework on the candidates. It is worth taking the time.

The CAWCD has the authority to set two property taxes for Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties. For the median priced home in Maricopa County – valued at $174,000 in 2016 -these taxes amount to roughly $24 a year.  These taxes are used primarily to repay the Federal government for constructing the CAP canal, operation and maintenance of the CAP system, and storage of Colorado River water for times of shortage. This is a nominal amount for the wise, long-term effort to keep our water future secure. 

During the next six years, many critical issues will be facing the CAWCD Board—in particular, setting the rates that utilities pay for Colorado River water delivered through the CAP.  Those costs are eventually passed on to you, the utility customer.  And those costs are likely to increase. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation could declare an official shortage of Colorado River water as soon as 2018.  A shortage would initially result in less Colorado River water delivered to CAP’s agricultural customers. Cities would still receive their full allocation of Colorado River water under an initial shortage declaration but cities also would pay more for their water. CAP must continue to generate enough money to maintain its delivery system, so cities would pay more to make up for lost revenue from agriculture customers.

2. It takes a lot of energy to move and lift Colorado River water uphill.  Ninety percent of CAP’s power comes from the Navajo Generating Station located on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Page, Arizona. New land and coal leases will be in place in 2019, which will increase the cost of CAP’s delivery of Colorado River water.

3. CAP must determine how it will recover Colorado River water stored in underground aquifers by the Arizona Water Banking Authority.  If shortages do become more serious, municipalities would need that stored water, and recovery of that water by CAP could be expensive. 

4.   CAP rates are directly linked to the operation and maintenance of the canal.  As the CAP’s infrastructure continues to age, maintenance costs will rise.

The cities are key CAP customers. Maricopa and Pima County cities with CAP contracts provide water to more than 85 percent of Arizona’s population.  CAWCD Board and the cities receiving CAP water will be facing important issues over the six-year terms of the candidates you are electing.  It will be critical that we work together for solutions that ultimately ensure you have secure, safe water at a reasonable price.

The CAWCD Board is a voluntary non-paid, non-partisan position.  It truly is public service and it remains important not to mix partisan politics into water.  So, do a little research.  Talk to water professionals if you know any. Search online to find out more about the candidates and who and what groups are endorsing them. Make a well-educated selection.  Above all, please do not just randomly vote or pick names that sound good. Share what you have learned with family, friends, and co-workers so they can also understand the importance of the CAP election.

The Board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District will be making a big imprint on your future and Arizona’s.  It is important to have Board members who are committed to the wise management of the CAP system to ensure Arizona has a strong water future.  This means having Board members who are active and engaged in all the issues facing CAWCD.

Here are the ten candidates who are running for the CAWCD Board with a link for those who have a campaign website.  Kudos to the candidates for running and for understanding the importance of CAP water to Maricopa County and the rest of Arizona.   

Alexandra Arboleda 

Jennifer Brown

Frank Fairbanks                  

Michael Francis

Thomas Galvin           

Ben Graff

Rick Heumann           

Jim Holway

Mark Lewis

Rory Van Poucke

Warren Tenney was elected twice to serve as a member of the CAWCD Board from Pima County. He served as Vice-President of the Board and as Chairman of the Board’s Finance, Audit & Power Committee. He resigned his board position in January 2016 to become Arizona Municipal Water User Association’s executive director.

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit http://www.amwua.org

Defying Mother Nature: Creative Solutions To Avoid Shortages

By Warren Tenney

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently confirmed Arizona would not face a declared shortage of Colorado River water in 2017. This is good news but Arizona’s cities, farmers and industry leaders must continue to plan for an eventual shortage on the Colorado River, which could come as soon as 2018.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior has the authority to declare shortages on the Colorado River. Under current agreements, this occurs when the Bureau of Reclamation projects that water levels of the Colorado River’s primary reservoir, Lake Mead, will be below an elevation of 1,075 feet in January of the following year. Lake Mead is currently right at 1,075 feet as the result of a sixteen year drought. Water levels are further exacerbated by the long-standing imbalance created from more water being taken from Lake Mead than what flows into it.

The primary reason we averted a shortage declaration in 2017 is because we did not rely solely on Mother Nature. This may sound audacious, but we avoided shortage in large part because Arizona and Central Arizona Project (CAP) led a successful effort to get CAP customers, the federal government, our neighboring Colorado River basin states, and Mexico to consider ways to slow Lake Mead’s declining water levels. The goal has been to keep water levels in Lake Mead from declining and jeopardizing the health of the Colorado River system. This is especially critical for Arizona because Central Arizona Project (CAP), the state’s main delivery system for Colorado River water, has what is called “junior priority” and must take the first cuts when a shortage is declared. This is why Valley cities are closely following what happens on the Colorado River and in Lake Mead.

CAP canal brings water to central Arizona. Photo: CAP

Here’s how Arizona has pushed back a shortage for now.  Over the last couple of years, CAP asked its agricultural and municipal customers to voluntarily leave water in Lake Mead. The target was to store 345,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead. This goal will be achieved by the end of this year. As part of this effort, the Cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale and Peoria agreed not to take their full allocations of Colorado River water.  Also, 11 agricultural irrigation districts in central Arizona agreed to reduce their use of Colorado River water.  These voluntary efforts have collectively conserved water in Lake Mead and helped prevent a shortage.

Efforts to conserve and intentionally create additional water in Lake Mead should continue and be expanded to slow Lake Mead’s falling water levels.  Municipalities are willing to continue to find ways to leave more water in Lake Mead. There are rules about how much water a state can intentionally save in Lake Mead. Despite this obstacle, Arizona should continue to work with its Colorado River partners to find more ways to protect Lake Mead and strengthen the overall health of the Colorado River. This includes finding creative arrangements going forward that provide incentives for cities to leave even more water in Lake Mead.

A look inside CAP’s control room. Photo: Philip A. Fortnam

Addressing water challenges is complicated with the devil always in the details. This will certainly be the case as we seek to strengthen our preparation for a shortage declaration.  Key to that preparation will be creativity and collaboration, which were central to our efforts to hold back a shortage for another year. 

Arizona leads the nation in creatively managing its water resources.  Among all the western states, Arizona is in the best position to weather the challenges faced by municipal water utilities. That’s because Arizona’s water professionals and leaders in industry, agriculture and municipalities have a long history of working together to solve water problems. Arizona’s responsibility is to continue to collaboratively and creatively tackle our current challenge of how best to protect Lake Mead and the health of the Colorado River so we can continue to use this important water source.

For 47 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org  

Water Bank: Arizona’s Emergency Savings Account

By Warren Tenney

In the early 1990s, Arizona was not using all the water it was legally due from the Colorado River. Instead, much of Arizona’s unused water flowed down the Colorado River to California. Here’s why: Under the law that governs the Colorado River, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior can give water not used by one state to other states. As a result, each year California was the beneficiary of at least some of Arizona’s unused water. At the time, there were also concerns that Nevada would soon eye Arizona’s unused allotment.

Arizona’s Colorado River water is used in multiple ways. One major use is to irrigate agricultural lands along the Colorado River, most prominently in the Yuma region. In addition to on-River farming, more than half of Arizona’s allotment goes to municipal, tribal and agricultural users in Central Arizona. These users receive the water through a 336-mile canal that transports water across the state called the Central Arizona Project (CAP).  Since most municipal, tribal and agricultural users did not use their full allotments of water in the 1990s, their unused Colorado River water went to California. This was an unsettling predicament for a desert state that expected a surge in population.  Arizona’s mantra became “leave no water on the River.”

To address concerns that Arizona’s water was going to California, water managers AWBA Logodeveloped a concept to deliver unused water through the Central Arizona Project to store underground. This stored water would act as a buffer for times of drought. With support from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, AMWUA, and others in the water community, the Arizona Legislature in 1996 established the Arizona Water Banking Authority, more commonly called the Water Bank. Today, the Water Bank has stored 3.4 million acre-feet of water for Arizona. (One acre-foot of water serves an average of three Arizona households for a year.)

Here are the two ways the Water Bank stores water:

1. Underground Storage Facilities: With help from CAP, the Water Bank delivers Colorado River water to one of many underground storage facilities in central and southern Arizona. CAP, cities and other water agencies operate these storage facilities. These water storage sites consist of large constructed ponds called recharge basins. These basins are designed to allow the water to easily percolate into the ground. The water enters the natural aquifer where it is available to be pumped up through wells and delivered to customers affected by a shortage of Colorado River water.

Southern Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project. Courtesy of Tucson Water.

Southern Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project. Photo: Tucson Water

2. Groundwater Savings Facilities: These facilities work as a water exchange. In this case, Colorado River water is delivered to participating agricultural lands and used to irrigate crops. Participating farms or irrigation districts that receive river water agree not to pump an equal amount of water from the aquifer, thereby “saving” water underground. In the event of a Colorado River shortage, the water that was saved in the aquifer would be pumped or “recovered” and delivered to customers, such as cities, to help make up for shortages.

In recent years, CAP has had less unused or “excess” water. This is because municipal, tribal and agricultural users have been using more and more of their CAP water allocations.  As a result the Water Bank has less unused water to store from the “excess pool.”  When there was more excess water, the Water Bank stored an average of 250,000 acre-feet of water a year. In the last two years, that number has dropped to an average of 65,000 acre-feet.

There is currently a 56 percent chance the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior will declare a shortage of Colorado River water as early as 2018. Under the law that governs the Colorado River, the Secretary declares shortages based on the water levels in Lake Mead, the giant reservoir that sits behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Arizona-Nevada border. A 16-year drought has driven Lake Mead to its lowest level since the dam was completed in 1936. A possible 2018 shortage declaration would not affect the water supplies for cities, but would impact agricultural users and the Colorado River “excess pool” from which the Water Bank draws its water.  

The Water Bank has allowed Arizona to take all of its water off of the River and store it for a “dry” day.  The 3.4 million acre-feet of water stored by the Water Bank is a key component of Arizona’s preparations for eventual shortage.  As part of these efforts, it is important that the Water Bank, CAP, and water users develop a comprehensive plan for how the stored water can be recovered to help cities if a shortage declaration impacts their water supplies. 

The creation and operation of the Arizona Water Banking Authority is just one more example of how Arizona has led the way in water investment and innovation. This legacy continues to drive the water community as we tackle the challenge of looming shortages on the Colorado River.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

Protect Lake Mead Now To Avoid Future Water Crisis

By Warren Tenney

Lake Mead has dropped to a historic low with a Colorado River shortage declaration looming as soon as the next couple of years. Arizona’s water managers have planned and prepared for a Colorado River shortage for decades. What worries them are projections showing that after a shortage is declared the levels in Lake Mead could swiftly fall and jeopardize the overall health of the Colorado River. To avoid that scenario, Arizona is actively working to implement measures to shore up Lake Mead and negotiate with its neighbors and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Last week, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) held a joint briefing to highlight Arizona’s actions to prepare for a shortage and push back a water crisis for Arizona. 

Arizona depends on the Colorado River for about 40 percent of its water supply. The 336-mile Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal transports the water across the state to farms and cities in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties. A 16-year drought on the Colorado River is exacerbating the fact that the Colorado River is already over allocated among the seven Basin States.

Photo: Central Arizona Project

Arizona knew this day was coming and prepared for shortages. For example, AMWUA member cities are not solely dependent on Colorado River water. Their supplies also include water from the Salt and Verde rivers, recycled water, water stored underground, and groundwater. The state has stored an additional 3.4 million acre-feet of water underground, or about two years worth of water delivered through the Central Arizona Project canal.

Lake Mead sits behind Hoover Dam and is the largest reservoir in the United States. It holds the Colorado River water that is delivered to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.  A shortage is declared when Lake Mead reaches an elevation of 1,075 feet per a 2007 agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states. (The Basin states are Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.) The lake is currently hovering near the 1,075-feet level.  Under the laws that govern the Colorado River, the Central Arizona Project in Arizona takes the first cut in a shortage. While Nevada also would be impacted by a shortage, California can continue to take its full water allocation.

The concern for Arizona, California and Nevada is that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling of the Colorado River shows Lake Mead has a one in ten chance of dropping even lower – to 1,025 feet – by 2020 and a 25 percent chance of reaching that point in 2023.  At 1,025 feet, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior can step in and take additional action to protect Lake Mead, including re-prioritizing deliveries among the Lower Basin states. This uncertainty could mean larger cuts for Arizona.  It also would mean that California could have to take an unknown cut. 

Growing risk and uncertainty have caused Arizona’s water managers to roll up their sleeves.  Arizona has been negotiating with California, Nevada and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to propose a plan that avoids the uncertainty of allowing Lake Mead to fall below 1,025 feet.  Under the proposed deal, Arizona and Nevada would voluntarily leave more water in Lake Mead. One of the most significant terms of the proposed deal is that California has agreed to take voluntary cuts should Lake Mead reach 1,045 feet. That avoids the unpredictability of the Secretary of Interior’s actions toward California should Lake Mead fall to 1,025 feet.

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Chart: Arizona Department of Water Resources

Taking an earlier voluntary reduction would be a preventive measure to protect the health of the River for Arizona’s future. The action would slow the lake’s fall and improve the odds of keeping it above the 1,025-foot level. Farms and cities would have greater certainty about their Colorado River supply. More importantly, it would avoid a sudden, unmanageable water crisis with a solution dictated by the federal government.

Arizona hasn’t agreed to anything yet and we don’t know how these voluntary cuts would affect Maricopa County’s cities. This summer the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) is conferring with various water supply managers, including cities, farmers and Indian communities, to put together an agreement to implement and absorb the voluntary cuts among all sectors. The goal is to reach a consensus and develop a state plan. It is an opportunity for Arizona to expand its history of sound water management through collaboration for the overall good of the state. 

It is important to note Arizona already has been making significant strides in keeping water in Lake Mead.  These efforts have helped to push back a shortage declaration.  The Central Arizona Project—along with support from agriculture and municipalities—has engaged in voluntary efforts to preserve water in Lake Mead. These combined efforts have stalled a shortage declaration by raising the lake’s water level by 5.5 feet.

Colorado River and Lake Mead are at a tipping point, but Arizona’s water managers are both optimistic and realistic about what’s ahead. Whether the plan moves forward or another one is developed, Arizona is actively addressing the problems and figuring out solutions to avoid the risk of a future water crisis.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.