Less Water for Arizona: State Reactions and Implications

By Ashley Hutton.

The Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) released its highly anticipated report in June, which delivered devastating, but unsurprising, news: The southwest is running out of water. The report highlighted the trajectory of reservoir conditions of Lakes Mead and Powell, the two reservoirs connected to the greater Colorado River system, and the forecast is critical. It warned that if the rate of inflow remains the same through next year, the lakes will need an additional 2.5 million acre-feet to stay above 22% capacity. To put this into perspective, a single acre-foot of water is over 325,800 gallons, enough to supply two average households with water for one year.

Water Levels at the Lowest

Lake Mead is at its lowest since 1937, and Lake Powell fell below 1967 levels. Unfortunately for forty million Americans who receive water from the Colorado River system, setting record lows is nothing to celebrate. For the first time ever, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 2a Shortage Condition beginning January 1, 2023. This level of operation signals water shortages in the Lower Basin States and Mexico. All seven Colorado River basin states must conserve two to four million acre-feet of water in order to mitigate the effects of the southwest megadrought. Specifically, the annual apportionment to Nevada will drop by eight percent, Mexico by seven percent, and Arizona by twenty one percent. California will not have to face any water apportionment reduction. These reductions are in addition to other active water preservation plans and provisions from the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines, 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty, and 2019 Drought Contingency Plans.

Federal Dollars for Drought Relief 

Reclamation has received over $12 billion to date during the Biden Administration for programs and relief related to water shortages. Most recently, the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden on August 16, 2022, allocates $4 billion for drought relief to Reclamation and $12.5 million for drought relief to southwestern tribes. This relief funding is in addition to the $8.3 billion already allocated to Reclamation as a part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. Currently, the basin states wait for Reclamation to announce how funds will be allocated and used.

Basin States Struggle to Collaborate

In the wake of Reclamation’s report, Arizona leaders are scrambling to find ways to operate under a 21% cut in water allocation while simultaneously assisting in the preservation of over two million acre-feet of water. Arizona water officials, including the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and the Central Arizona Project (CAP), have been trying to rally support from the surrounding basin states to advance interstate measures already in place through the 2007 Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan. However, negotiations and planning have fallen into an impasse since July. The upper basin states pointed to Arizona, California, and Nevada, insisting “that [the upper basin states] are already using far less than they’re entitled to and have limited abilities to reduce use quickly.” Meanwhile, Arizona water officials express concern that other states are not doing their share to assist in the greater water preservation goal. Ted Cooke, the general manager of the CAP, remarks in frustration that “[i]t is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.” While Reclamation has the ultimate authority to allocate federal funds and control water release to the lower basin, some believe that “if anyone’s to blame . . . it should be the states for failing to reach a deal” to mitigate water shortages.

Impacts on Arizona Residents, Farmers, and Energy

While awaiting direction and funds from Reclamation and collaboration with other basin states, Arizona cities are rolling out plans to combat the inevitable water shortage. For example, Scottsdale, which receives 65% of its water from the Colorado River, plans to reduce its Colorado water usage by 30% and possibly impose Stage 2 or 3 conservation measures. Glendale, which receives 45% of its water from the Colorado River, plans to drill two new wells and tap into its stored underground water reserves. Many other Arizona cities are taking more mild measures, such as asking residents to voluntarily conserve water. While the Valley cities receive a generous portion of its total water allocation from the shrinking Colorado River supply, residents are unlikely to experience many adverse effects in their personal freshwater delivery anytime soon.

Arizona agriculture is more likely to experience immediate impacts from the impending water allocation reduction. One Pinal County farmer of alfalfa and Bermuda grass stated that his farming business will likely downsize. “Most of us local farmers may have to just close up shop and go find another job,” he explained. The Arizona Farm Bureau addressed the future water cuts imposed by Reclamation in its statement: “Farmers in Central Arizona are already living through the impacts of reduced water deliveries, and [this] announcement will only increase the pressure on farming communities.” Roughly 30–40% of Pinal County farmers expect to leave their fields empty in preparation for a limited water supply.

To combat the loss of income, some farmers propose a “pay-for-less” model of water preservation, in which farmers will be paid for using less water per foot-acre. Others propose utilizing solar panels to provide shade for crops and reduce water needs, or planting desert-native crops that require less water than conventional crops. These proposals are met with opposition, as some believe that farming is a per se unsustainable practice in southwest deserts where water is inherently a valuable resource. Regardless, it is clear that collaboration between state water officials and farmers will be critical because 72% of Arizona water is dedicated to agriculture.

The water shortage also harkens interesting questions about impacts, if any, on the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station’s contract renewal, which requires the delivery of treated wastewater for essential station functions. The agreement would provide 26 billion gallons of treated water to Palo Verde from Valley cities. At first, the connection between the shortage of freshwater from Lakes Powell and Mead and the delivery of treated wastewater for nuclear energy production seems unclear. However, potential issues may arise as the cities of Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe begin diverting more treated wastewater for outdoor uses to conserve freshwater. While speculative now, the impacts of the southwest megadrought and low Colorado river water levels will take hold when Reclamation’s operation plans for Lake Mead take effect next year.

"Drought on Lake Mead" by U.S. Geological Survey is marked with CC0 1.0.