Arizona to face water cuts after first-ever water shortage declared

Updated: Aug. 16, 2021 at 2:37 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- For the first time in history, a water shortage has been declared on the Colorado River, a source of water for approximately 40 million people in western states, including Arizona. Years of severe drought conditions made worse by climate change has led to record low water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead along the Arizona and Nevada borders, two of the river’s main reservoirs.

The shortage will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado river, with...
The shortage will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado river, with reductions falling largely to central Arizona agricultural users. Water supplies for cities and tribes will not be affected in 2022.(Arizona's Family)

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the total Colorado River system storage as of August 16 is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.

The U.S. Department of Reclamation officials announced their decision to declare a “Level 1″ water shortage on Monday. According to the state’s largest supplier of water, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), the reductions would force the agency to take a cut of up to 30% of CAP’s normal supply and about 18% of Arizona’s Colorado River supply. This would be less than 8% of Arizona’s total water use. CAP serves agricultural and municipal customers throughout northern, central, and southern Arizona, including Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.

“Today’s announcement of a Level 1 Shortage Condition at Lake Mead underscores the value of the collaborative agreements we have in place with the seven basin states, Tribes, water users and Mexico in the management of water in the Colorado River Basin,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Touton.

“We’ve only received about 30 percent of what normally would’ve flowed into Lake Powell this year,” explains the Bureau of Reclamation’s Bob Martin. “It’s getting serious, and after 21 years of drought, it’s easy to get calloused to that news headline,” he added.  “But as we get further into the drought, the more serious it becomes for everybody.

“What’s affected most is access,” said Bill McBurney, a fishing guide in the area. “The ramps are running out of water.” Several of the lake’s docks and marinas are closed for now, with docks danging in mid-air above the water level below. At Antelope Point Marina, they build a ramp to connect the parking lot ramp to the floating dock below.

“The whole effect, the whole picture of it leaves you in wonderment, just how far it can go,” added McBurney. The popular fishing guide says the fish are still biting and he hopes people won’t cancel their trips to the lake.  “There’s still a lot of water. We’ve got over 30 feet here and almost 400 in the main channel.”

The Arizona Farm Bureau says this is something they’ve been keeping an eye on for the last several years. “We track the conditions on the Colorado River extremely closely and so we saw the trends and we were expecting this announcement to come out today,” said Philip Bashaw, the CEO of the Arizona Farm Bureau. “It will take several years of above-average snowpack up on the western slope in the states above us for the river to recover.”

The Central Arizona Project says the shortage has been pushed back for five years thanks to conservation efforts. Bashaw and the CAP says the agriculture community in Pinal County will see the brunt of the shortage.

“Farmers down in Pinal County are going to lose access to approximately 50% of the water they currently rely on to produce food and fiber in that agricultural-growing region so it will have a devastating impact on farmers down there,” Bashaw said. “The irrigation district and the farmers that are within those irrigation districts have been working diligently to find alternative water sources, to build out infrastructure, to take advantage of groundwater resources and replace some of that water we’re going to use as part of that shortage, but it will have a significant impact on our farmers down there.”

However, this shouldn’t impact grocery store shelves--at least for a while. “Overall, we don’t anticipate for this to cause any spikes in those prices but there will be a decline in productivity,” explained Chuck Cullom, the Colorado River Programs Manager with the CAP.

As for residential water users, Cullom says homeowners in places like Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties won’t see a difference in tap water. “Depending on the city, they may see a very minor increase in their water rates, but overall, 2022 will look very similar to a homeowner in Gilbert to 2021,” Cullom said.

Good snowfall in the Rockies will certainly play a role in getting out of the shortage, but CAP and the Farm Bureau said it’s also up to us to conserve water. “We’ve felt for a very long time that water conservation needs to be a part of everyone’s mindset, particularly in the desert when it comes time for things like this where we’re seeing shortages and we need to conserve in order to get through a drought,” Bashaw said.

“The Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin (Indian) Community, Fort McDowell and others have played a central role in preparing Arizona to adapt to the shortage that we’re experiencing,” Cullom said. “Cities, tribes, agriculture are all part of the fabric of the water community in Arizona and we’ve come together to face this shortage in 2022 together and I’m optimistic we’ll be successful in the long term with this shortage that we all share.”

The Colorado River and Lake Mead provide drinking water, irrigation for farms, and hydropower generated at the Hoover Dam to seven Western states and parts of Mexico.

Agriculture in Pinal county will be hit hardest when the cuts start in 2022. According to the Arizona Farm Bureau, farms in Central Arizona will lose access to nearly half of the water on which they now rely to grow food and fiber for Arizona’s families. Bureau officials warn that the cuts will not only have a devastating impact on each farming family in Pinal County, but the surrounding communities will also feel the ripple effects for years to come. Agriculture contributes nearly $23 billion a year to the state.

Most cities and water districts serving residential and commercial customers will not see any cuts according to the “Level 1″ declaration. However, water officials around the state continue to call for users to conserve water as much as possible. If conditions along the river do not improve and Lake Mead’s water levels continue to drop the federal government could call for a “Level 2 or 3″ shortage alerts which would cut the amount of water sent to all water users including residential.

The report did not come as a surprise for many local governments who have been “banking” excess water supplies for years. The City of Mesa told residents the water supply in the city is secure despite the water declaration. Learn more about Mesa’s water strategy here. In Arizona’s largest city, Phoenix says it’s build with drought conditions in mind. “The Bureau of Reclamation’s Tier 1 Shortage declaration does not come as a surprise, as it is reflective of serious drought conditions across the Western United States. The City of Phoenix has been working for the last several decades to diversify water resources, store water for future use, and invest in infrastructure to enhance the city’s resilience to drought,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. The Phoenix water resources plan is available here.

If you’re planning a trip to Lake Powell, the National Park Service says be prepared for longer lines and limited parking along with more congestion on the water since there’s simply less lake to share. The cuts coming out of Lake Mead to Arizona take effect in January. The Bureau of Reclamation also announced that they will release less water from Lake Powell into Lake Mead next year, unless we get a very wet winter.