Arizona is last in line when it comes to the seven U.S. states trying to divvy up Colorado River water.
“We’re taking the brunt of the shortage right now to try and keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from going down further,” said Terry Goddard, the former Phoenix mayor and state Attorney General who is currently the board president for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Goddard and three other experts were part of a presentation last month on water at the Chandler Chamber of Commerce Policy Impact Series.
The largest man-made reservoirs of water in the United States are both at historically low levels. There are fears that they could drop so low they will not be able to power the turbines that generate electricity for millions.
More water has been taken out than flows in for years, and the current drought is more two decades old.
Everyone agrees cuts need to be made but no one agrees on where to make those cuts.
For its entire history, the seven U.S. states and Mexico have relied on voluntary agreements to manage Colorado River water, notwithstanding the occasional court rulings and international treaties along the way.
But having already failed to find consensus on the current challenges, the federal government is preparing to step in.
The Biden Administration announced April 11 that it would force all seven states to cut the amount of water they take out of the Colorado River by 14%.
That could either put pressure on the states to find consensus on voluntary cutbacks or the federal government will impose a mandate, probably late this summer.
The seven U.S. states with rights to the Colorado River are Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Arizona. They are split into two regions, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin. Most of Arizona is in the Lower Basin with California and Nevada.
For decades. the water has been split in half between the upper and lower basin states. (There is a small portion of Northern Arizona in the Upper Basin).
California has the oldest rights to the river water. Nevada is next. Arizona is last. In addition, a number of farms directly connected to the river, mostly in Yuma, have rights as well.
“To put it very bluntly, California is not our friend in this discussion,” Goddard said. “They have not been willing to share.”
Simone Kjolsrud, Chandler’s water resource advisor, said Arizona has rights to about 2.8 million acre-feet of water each year. About half of that goes to the communities along the river.
That leaves one of the largest population centers in the Western U.S. last in line with rights to about 1.4 million acre feet. And that’s likely to be cut by the end of this summer.
“We’re going to have the lowest priority of the river for CAP (Central Arizona Project),” Goddard said. “The central part of the state.”
Fortunately, this was one of the wettest winters in years with more than 500% more rain and snow than normal. That won’t fix the problem, but it allows for more time for the states to try and reach a consensus agreement.
In addition to more water being taken out than is being replenished, Goddard said there is another factor working against the more than 40 million Americans who rely on Colorado River water.
“What has changed, and changed dramatically, is that the entire basin is warm,” he said. “The result is that more water evaporates, more of the snowfall and rain that we’ve depended on for runoff, ends up in the soil, replenishing when it’s dried out over the summer.
“We’ve seen it in the forest fires which have absolutely pillaged the western United States.”
He said it’s because of climate change, and it’s a permanent change that won’t be fixed when the drought ends.
Most Arizona cities know this is a desert, and they have to conserve water. Because Arizona is last in line, it has often been far more aggressive than other basin states in how it governs water, the experts said.
“Cities are reusing almost 95% of the water that enters their wastewater treatment system,” said Sarah Porter, the director of Kyl Center for Water Policy as the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
“For the bigger, older cities, this is a very important strategy for future resilience. We need to think about how are we going to adapt. How do we balance those needs with the need to try to reduce water use outside where it’s really not providing a benefit.”
Chandler’s Kjolsrud said despite all the negative headlines, it’s been a great year for water on the Colorado River.
She said the SNE, or snow water equivalent, for the river was at 152% of its 30-year average.
“As far as I know, it’s in the top five of all the last 30 years in terms of the most snowpack, the wettest years,” Kjolsrud said.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t remind you that one good year on the Colorado River does not change the long-term challenges, because even though it’s going to really help us buy some time for some of the challenging negotiations that are going on at the state level … It doesn’t change the overall long-term trend.”
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