Arizona’s Water Supply: Running on Empty and Facing Cutbacks

Lake Mead, the primary upstream reservoir for the state of Arizona, is currently estimated to contain approximately 39 percent of its total water capacity. In the month of July, the water level of the lake was at its lowest documented level since 1937. However, unlike today, in 1937 the low levels resulted from the completion of the Hoover dam on the Colorado River that was intended to collect water and form the nation’s largest man-made reservoir. As a result of the receding water level, multiple boat landings and marinas found on Lake Mead have either had to relocate or shut down operations entirely. The businesses that decide to continue operating encounter severe costs associated with transporting or reconstructing the mandatory electrical, fuel, water, and sewer lines.

If Colorado River Basin States do not develop methods to reduce water consumption while simultaneously surviving the extreme drought, Arizona could be forced to cut water deliveries to cities such as Phoenix and Tucson. Presently, Lake Mead supplies approximately half of Phoenix’s total water needs, while Tucson obtains nearly all of its water from the lake.

Specifically, if Arizona cannot reduce its water consumption, water delivery cutbacks could become necessary by the year 2019. Also, depending on future drought conditions, the potential for water cutbacks could be as high as 29 percent by the year 2026.  Officials from the Central Arizona Project (“CAP”), which manages the 336-mile water system, believe that cities could possibly make accommodations for the water reductions by obtaining water from other surface water sources, such as lakes and rivers.

Although the limited water supply is not by any means a new concern to states in the Southwest, the prospective water shortage in Arizona’s cities is being raised publicly for the first time. If states located in the upstream portion of the Colorado River Basin cannot provide for the water shortage, with water obtained from snow melt or rain fall, Lake Mead’s surface level is projected to reach 1,000 feet above sea level by the year 2020, which is nearly 220 feet below its water level capacity.

Despite the potential of a near, worst-case scenario, CAP officials continue to maintain a relatively positive attitude for the organization’s plan of action. First, officials believe that such water shortages should not affect Arizona cities for at least 10 to 15 years. In 2007, the Secretary of the Interior adopted guidelines that quantify the reductions at various water surface elevations of Lake Mead. CAP officials ensure that the maximum reduction under the guidelines is still enough water to supply all of the municipal demands. Second, the predicted water shortages by 2017 will mainly affect central Arizona’s agricultural system, which is already preparing for reductions in water supply. Finally, the Arizona Water Banking Authority stores excess water in underground aquifers and has done so since the organization’s creation in 1995.

Lake Mead’s receding water level presents a grave concern for lower Colorado River Basin States such as Arizona. However, a “key shortage declaration,” which is only initiated if Lake Mead’s water level reaches 1,075 feet, is unlikely to be made either this year or in 2015.

 

The title picture is of Lake Mead, straddling the Nevada-Arizona border.This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner of this picture does not endorse the DU WLR.


Sources:

Michael Wines, Arizona Cities Could Face Cutbacks in Water From Colorado River, Officials Say, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/18/us/arizona-cities-could-face-cutbacks-in-water-from-colorado-river-officials-say.html?_r=0 (last visited July 25, 2014).

Pamela Pickard, The Facts About Arizona’s Water Supplies, Central Arizona Project http://www.cap-az.com/index.php/public/blog/468-the-facts-about-arizonas-water-supplies (last visited July 26, 2014).

William M. Welch, West’s water worries rise as Lake Mead falls, USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/26/lake-mead-falling-in-sign-of-drought/13079009/  (last visited July 28, 2014).

The Associated Press, Water Levels at Nevada’s Lake Mead drop to new low, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/2014/07/08/water-levels-at-nevadas-lake-mead-drop-to-new-low/12392335/ (last visited July 28, 2014).