In water deficit, Arizona contemplates a future without Colorado River access
CAP leaders say policymakers should prepare for the worst-case scenario
Water from the Colorado River covers more than a third of Arizona's total water usage, but the state is increasingly losing access to that supply.
The state is no longer in what Terry Goddard, the president of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board of Directors, called “a fool’s paradise." Arizona had maintined a surplus of water since the mid-1980s, but that's not the case today. Now, it’s losing water, and it’s losing it fast.
That loss, and potential future loss, was the focal point of Arizona's state legislature Tuesday, starting with a presentation from the Central Arizona Project on the status of the state's water supply in which legislators heard about the tensions between Arizona and other Colorodo River Basin states over access to groundwater.
The Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal that flows through Phoenix and past Tucson, brings water from the Colorado River to more than 5 million people in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties. As allotted in the Colorado River Compact of 1944, Arizona receives 2.8 million acre-feet of water from the river every year, which amounts to 36% of its total water supply. That water generates an economic benefit of about $100 billion per year, according to CAP.
An acre-foot of water, about 326,000 gallons, is enough to serve about three families in a year, CAP General Manager Brenda Burman told a group of Arizona legislators Tuesday.
Burman said CAP was forced to cut about 512,000 acre-feet in 2022. The shortage was felt most heavily by agriculture users, the lowest priority user in the system.
“This year, we see a much deeper shortage and less mitigations,” she said. Along with another cut of nearly 600,000 acre-feet, Arizona and the rest of the states on the Colorado River Basin were instructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to conserve two to four more million acre-feet between them in 2023. If the states don’t create a conservation plan by the end of January, the bureau said it will enforce cuts.
The Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet from the river to the upper and lower Colorado River Basins and 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico. But now, Goddard said, the level of water remaining in the river systems is about half of what it was at the time of the deal.
States in the upper basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — have been using less of their allotted share of the water, one state representative pointed out during the briefing. Additionally, Arizona takes a junior priority to fellow lower basin state California, which receives 4.4 million acre-feet from the river per year. If other basin states use more of their allocation as they grow, the lower basin could lose access to Colorado River water entirely.
That’s what Goddard, who once was the state's attorney general, and CAP are fighting against.
“We’re going to war here,” Goddard said. “Let’s be very very frank. Their interests are not our interests.”
Goddard said it’s CAP’s job to prove that Arizona uses the water it receives efficiently and responsibly — something he said upper basin states like to claim Arizona doesn’t do.
Burman said that even if the upper basin states want to use more water, they still owe the lower basin states and Mexico their fair share, according to the compact.
Republican State Representative Alexander Kolodin of Scottsdale disagreed, saying other basin states could take more than their faire share, leaving nothing left for Arizona.
“Legally, we don’t have a leg to stand on,” he said. “We’re the lowest priority man on the totem pole.”
“We are in a junior position that is very difficult,” Burman replied. “I’d say we’re still standing on one leg and we’re doing yoga and Pilates.”
Kolodin asked when cities in the state will begin to lose water entirely if CAP is cut off from the river.
“That’s the right question,” Goddard replied. “We can’t answer it.”
Kolodin said knowing when the taps will go dry is key to the urgency of making mitigation decisions.
“If the answer is five decades, then we have time for long-term plans,” he said in a phone call after the briefing. “If it’s five years, then it’s triage.”
Goddard explained after the briefing that the hypothetical bottom line Kolodin referred to is a “moving target.” He said the water that’s currently underground could potentially last eight to 10 years, but that’s without any other conservation efforts.
“We have to take a hard look at what our resources are and what’s the worst-case scenario,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we get to the worst case, because hopefully we take measures between now and then to keep it from happening.”
While Goddard said CAP has a “strong argument” for Arizona’s continued access to the river, he said that planners at the legislature need to consider that losing access to the river entirely is a real possibility.
The continued loss of water is a product not only of climate change but a 23-year drought that scientists call the driest period the southwest has seen in 1,200 years. The reductions are the result of roughly “40% climate change as opposed to just drought,” Burman said during a meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water in the afternoon.
Legislators discussed potential solutions in the CAP briefing and also during the natural resources committee meeting Tuesday. Those included desalination of seawater and brackish water, which is water saltier than fresh water but not as much so as seawater. Water Infrastructure Finance Authority Executive Director Chuck Podolak said he wasn’t sure whether desalinization is the best or only way forward. He said the office, which represents all of Arizona rather than the three counties that host CAP, hasn’t yet made an official plan to move forward.
The drought has already taken effect in Maricopa County, where Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega decided to cut off water supplied by the city to the Rio Verde foothills northeast of Scottsdale, leaving 500 homes to find a new way to receive water as of Jan. 1.
Kolodin asked Department of Water Resources President Tom Buschatzke during the committee meeting if there are possible actions to help the people of Rio Verde transition to a new water supply.
Buschatzke said they have discussed potential solutions with the residents and EPCORE, a utility company that can deliver water to customers.
“But I think their options are limited,” he replied.
While Goddard said the state’s available groundwater is enough to keep Arizona safe for a while, Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs' State of the State address Monday indicated groundwater is in trouble.
The briefing and committee hearing came just one day after Hobbs announced plans to create a Governor’s Water Policy Council to update the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which sets the rules for how Arizona uses the groundwater that makes up 41% of the state’s water supply.