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Schaller: Arizona's coming water shortage: Getting the story right

Water has never been a straightforward matter in Arizona. It will be insisting on our attention again soon and we’d best get the storyline right.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to announce a shortage declaration at Lake Mead in mid-August, as levels sink below the trigger point for a Tier 1 cutback. For Arizona, this means a cut of 500,000+ acre-feet from our 2022 delivery of Colorado River water, fully one-third of our annual allocation under existing water agreements.

The cuts will hit Pinal County agriculture first. But if we can’t halt the decline in Lake Mead, more punitive Tier 2 cuts await in 2023, affecting Tucson and other cities who depend on Central Arizona Project flows.

As Lake Mead’s dire water level begins to capture public attention, a complex situation grows more challenging to understand even on a good day.

At the heart of our water system is the CAP, built to deliver Arizona’s hard-fought share of the Colorado. Yet in any shortfall situation at Lake Mead, Arizona’s rights to water are subsidiary to other states in the Lower Basin. Such was the deal — not perfect but better than no Colorado water at all.

Then there’s the link between surface water and groundwater tradeoffs that will soon be accentuated when Pinal County farmers lose access to CAP water as the Lake Mead shortage declaration kicks in. It was water they never had priority rights to, but got to use for a time somewhere along the line.

Time’s up. That free pass is about to end in 2022, and a third of Pinal’s agricultural lands that cannot quickly get groundwater wells installed will see green fields go fallow. This is a complex story in itself.

There’s also the fundamental link between the water in Lake Powell and water in Lake Mead. Mead’s releases are driven by priority demands in California and our own junior rights in Arizona. Mead’s water comes largely from releases out of Lake Powell, itself dependent on snowmelt from the Rockies.

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Climate change continues to zero in on the Southwest, creating water shortages everywhere. If the Rockies don’t deliver what Powell needs to deliver to Mead to replace what Mead delivers every year to the lettuce and alfalfa growers and municipalities in California and Arizona, well, that’s when people start getting anxious. The “water anxiety” needle is once again starting to move.

The great 336-mile CAP plumbing system that delivers water to Arizona farms and cities is like a just-in-time business operation.

As we occasionally get tutored, when a necessary component does not arrive on time, bottlenecks in an operation, whether a bakery or auto plant, can present themselves suddenly. Once inventories run low, effects ripple across entire sectors and economies. Water has not been arriving as expected along the Colorado River system for some time now, causing ripples in more ways than one.

It’s not just Lake Mead that is at a record-low elevation, but also its critical upstream hydrologic partner Lake Powell. These bodies of water, when full the two largest reservoirs in the United States, are difficult to recognize these days with so little water in them.

The imagery of the “bathtub” effect along the walls of Utah’s Glen Canyon and the cliffs of Black Canyon behind Lake Mead has done more to communicate our water crisis than any calculator or stream gauge. In the popular imagination, that counts for a great deal. And the story is getting more dramatic daily. How it gets told, and who does the telling, will go a long way to prepare us for the hard choices which lay ahead.

When we look at how the lakes have fallen, we instantly know something’s not right. We can sense it even more when federal water authorities decided in July, almost overnight, to authorize “emergency” releases of water to a shrinking Lake Powell from distant reservoirs in Wyoming and Colorado. It is happening because there is not enough winter runoff from the Rockies to comfortably keep Lake Powell high enough to continue generating power for the rest of the year.

Also forcing the authorities’ hands was California’s new, legal right to negate power delivery arrangements with electric utilities in neighboring states like Arizona. Those utilities, APS, TEP, and others, must now scramble to find alternative power, especially to meet AC demand over a cooling season not nearly over. Recall that the last 100 degree day in Phoenix in 2020 was October 16.

An emergent Arizona energy problem has quickly became a regional water problem.

Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon power station already delivers electricity to chill Arizona homes and offices but soon may be asked to deliver even more. This additional water will come from the Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs, as recently announced. In part this is to keep Powell’s levels high enough under drought conditions to generate its normal amount of power for the rest of 2021. It is also available to generate additional power in emergency situations to replace what was expected from the now-threatened arrangements with the California grid operators.

The Bureau of Reclamation signaled as much in a July 6, 2021, press notice received by, among others, the Grand Canyon River Guides, a Flagstaff association representing Colorado River rafting interests. The release notes that the Western Area Power Administration, which markets power generated at Glen Canyon Dam, “has alerted Reclamation to an increased possibility that Glen Canyon Dam’s power plant will need to augment power supplies in the event of a potential power system emergency.” The Bureau has interpreted this further, urging “those recreating on or along the Colorado River through Glen and Grand canyons to exercise increased caution as summer energy demands may cause rapid changes to the river’s flow.”

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In other words, a situation where extra, instantaneous power augmentation, usually handled through power purchase agreements with the California grid, now can no longer be assured. When and as the need arises to release extra water through Glen Canyon Dam, those recreating on the Colorado River inside Grand Canyon should consider themselves duly warned that “rapid changes to the river’s flow” from those releases can be expected.

We’re finding out just how nuanced this water business can be. Is it a water problem? Yes.

Is it also an energy problem? The answer is the same. Yet we’re not addressing it that way yet.

The next big test will come when the Tier 1 shortage declaration is made in a couple of weeks.

State and local water authorities have been planning for some time. Tucson Water is hiring new water and climate communication staff, Phoenix is recruiting for someone to tackle the city’s heat emergency threat that will only be more difficult as municipal water shortages inch closer, and the CAP and the Arizona Department of Water Resources are already anticipating their options as a Tier 2 shortage declaration suddenly looks more possible this time next year if critical reservoir levels fall further.

A lot is in motion and a lot is at stake yet the CAP system has only so much resiliency.

'Nothing to see here'

We’ve been hearing some of the water messaging for awhile: “There’s a shortage, but we have a plan,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke offered in an April 29, 2021, meeting co-hosted by ADWR; “It’s important to understand this is not a crisis, but a drought that is expected when you live in the desert,” said Patty Garcia-Likens, Salt River Project spokesperson in a Cronkite News story in late May.

Tucson Assistant City Manager Tim Thomure disavowed the word "crisis" in a radio interview with Tucson Sentinel Editor Dylan Smith last week.

Can we please stop talking like that?

Unless we do, we’ll soon find that other messaging will replace such equivocating appraisals of where we stand. It will be a narrative we cannot control.

The coming shortage declaration will no doubt capture national and international headlines. Imagine the storylines being sketched out in New York and Washington right now. It is a fair question to ask whether they will all agree that “this is not a crisis” or “we have a plan” are sufficiently comforting replies from those charged with the heavy responsibility of minding the state’s water future. The question would not need asking if such silly statements had not been said in the first place.

Our local governments and their respective water authorities may find they cannot influence perceptions originating too far beyond their own board rooms and council chambers.

What happens to their prevailing and rosy expectations about economic growth, stable business climate, population increases, and rising property valuations once the word goes out at a national level that water from Lake Mead is being rationed in Arizona? That is the big unknown.

For starters, we absolutely need a better message than "This is not a crisis.” It is not enough just to say that the taps will stay open.

Saying: “Nothing to see here, move along…move along” works only in a Jedi mind trick.

What happens if the narrative holds that we are in some semi-permanent stage of water shortage? “Transparency and communication is key,” Robert Bernardo, river operations manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, urged this spring.

What Bernardo calls for must come from all our elected folks and their water managers, all talking from the same sheet. The message must be consistent, honest and as blunt as necessary. And if they can’t manage this task, there are surely others who can.

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This must all happen sooner if we are to be believed later when even harder questions start getting asked. Questions like: “Should I move to Arizona if water supplies are so uncertain?” or “Will there be enough water if I want to expand my chip fab factory?”

In other words, “If we decide to invest our lives and grow our businesses in Arizona now, will the water still be there later?”

We’re about to find out how honest and transparent the emerging Arizona water shortage narrative will be.

David Schaller is a retired EPA environmental scientist and Tucson native. He currently writes on regional energy, water, and climate security. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg and a member of the Hurricane Katrina response effort. He has published a sustainability best practices newsletter weekly since 2000.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly used gallons rather than acre-feet to quantify the pending cuts to Tucson’s water allocation. One acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.


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Gene Moreland/TucsonSentinel.com

Lake Mead in July 2021. The distinctive 'bathtub' ring on the surrounding cliffs show the substantial drop in water level.

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