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Tucson offers to turn off tap on some Colorado River water to try to save Lake Mead

Tucson is offering to give up part of its Colorado River allotment to try to maintain water levels in Lake Mead, an important reservoir for Arizona and other Southwestern states that has been imperiled by drought.

The city may forgo some of the water that is usually pumped hundreds of miles upstream after a unanimous City Council vote during a study session meeting Thursday. Officials will negotiate with other Central Arizona Project users such as Phoenix and the Gila River Indian Community and other state, federal and tribal partners on a plan that could have Tucson not tap some of the annual supply allocated for the city.

Water levels in Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada, have reached record lows, with vast stretches formerly deep under water now bone dry. The reservoir now holds only about 30 percent of its total capacity after two decades of drought, and a "shortage condition" may lead to restrictions on pumping water from the lake this summer.

Mayor Regina Romero said Thursday that Tucson is in a “strong, strong position in terms of our water resources” and as a result, is in a position to “add water back” into Lake Mead, so “we can mitigate the catastrophic levels that we are seeing.”

The lake, 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas, is the source of water delivered to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties through the Central Arizona Project. Its water levels are now at their lowest level since it was first being filled in the 1930s — so low that hidden dead bodies are appearing.

Just up the river, Lake Powell, a reservoir behind the Glen Canyon Dam at the other end of the Grand Canyon, is also experiencing water shortages. Lake Powell is less than 25 percent full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

For years, Tucson has been storing much of its annual supply of CAP water by recharging it into the local aquifer, to be tapped later.

Romero is now suggesting that Tucson has a “moral obligation” to dial back on pumping Colorado River water and combat “dire water elevation predictions” that say Lake Mead will reach "deadpool" levels in a few years.

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Tucson uses about 30 billion gallons of water per year that mostly comes from a mix of Colorado River water and groundwater. Tucson Water has more 700,000 customers each year, and Romero said it’s important to continue getting water to customers inside and outside the city limits.

“It is our moral obligation as mayor and Council and as a city that has prepared for this day to come,” she said. “I feel it is our moral obligation to work with our partners, the Gila River Community and others, to put water back into Lake Mead.”

The mayor said she’s spoken with the Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community and that “he really sees the city of Tucson as a leader in this effort.”

“I do too, frankly,” Romero said. “We have a very special place in this particular situation.”

The City Council discussed the details of planned negotiations in a closed door executive session, and members haven’t talked about what they’re willing to exchange for the city's allotment.

Lake Mead’s water elevation recorded on Dec. 2, 2021 was 1,087 feet, which is the lowest it’s been since 1936, shortly after it was built. The reservoir has a capacity for 1,225 feet of water.

The water elevation of the reservoir has continuously been declining since the mid-1990s because of a drought in the Southwest, though the elevation increased slightly from 2011-2013. The Colorado River is largely supplied by melting snow in the mountains of Colorado, with smaller tributaries from Arizona and Utah.

The reservoir is currently at what’s called a Tier 1 shortage, and Tucson is offering to give up its water allotments to keep the reservoir from falling to a Tier 2b shortage, which would be a water elevation at 1,045 feet or lower. A deadpool would occur when the water elevation is less than 900 feet, with no water flowing downstream and the Hoover Dam no longer be able to generate electricity.

Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik said that if every Colorado River user continued to take their legal allotments “we’d suck it dry” soon. Tucson is “good for 6 or 7 years” because of their conservation efforts, but “we have to look beyond that,” he said.

“This is our new reality and even if we had a decade straight of really significant snowpack and runoff in the Rockies, that’s not going to solve things for us,” Kozachik said. “It’s great to take this interim step to say we’re all in on this, we’re at the table, but this is just anteing up. The real poker game is coming.”

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Kozachik also advocated that legal allocations of Colorado River water to the seven states, tribes and Mexico all shrink.

The City Council directed city staff to negotiate with other Colorado River water users and bring back any agreement to the Council for approval at their July 7 meeting.

Romero, who’s up for election next year, clarified that the negotiations are expected to last for the next two years.

“It’s very, very important to state that we need to come back to the table with the state (Arizona) and with those who take water for a long-term approach,” she said. “It really is trying to find a long-term solution for a problem we’re facing in the long run.”

The mayor wants the city attorney and Tucson Water to “advocate for a long-term approach” with their Colorado River partners. She also said it’s important that those negotiations start soon, well before the end of the current drought contingency plan between Arizona, Utah and Nevada to save water annually through 2026.

“I don’t think Lake Mead or Lake Powell can wait for 2026 until that negotiation starts,” she said. “As we think about the short-term approach, we really have to come back to the table before 2026 for the long-term approach.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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Ross Rice/The Water Desk and Lighthawk

The light-colored exposed 'bathtub ring' of formerly submerged shoreline in Lake Mead was already evident in this 2020 photo of the Hoover Dam and diminishing reservoir behind it.

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