Water in the West, Part 1

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What everyone in arid Arizona needs to know about Western water challenges
December 1, 2016

(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part outline of the major challenges facing the State of Arizona and the Southwest as the region's water leaders prepare to meet in discussions about the future health of the Colorado River system; in Part 2, we will focus on the challenges - and the advantages - facing the Southwest. Today, we highlight some of the major issues facing Arizona)

It is not just the advent of the holiday season that is stirring up a sense of change in the air. 

Fast-changing developments in the complex world of water in the Southwest are in the wind, too. 

Negotiations over a possible plan to help resolve the increasing instability in Lake Mead water levels are intensifying - not only among Arizona stakeholders, but among stakeholders in California, Nevada, Washington, D.C., and Mexico. 

It is possible - not certain, but possible - that Arizona and its Colorado River partners may come to an agreement soon to conserve a portion of their Colorado River allocations in order to protect the rapidly declining water levels of Lake Mead. 

Their goal, known as a "drought contingency plan" the Lower Basin states, is taking shape now. 

Water users from across the Southwest will meet in mid-December at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference to discuss the condition of the threatened river system. For this region stricken by 16 long years of epochal drought, a great deal may hinge on decisions made over these next few weeks.

In related developments, the cast of final-decision-makers - the leaders, most of them elected, at both the national and state levels who will be charged with affirming (or, denying) those Colorado River agreements - is changing. 

A new administration soon will take office in the nation's capitol. And near-record numbers of freshman legislators will take office at the Arizona State Capitol. 

In Arizona in particular, our newly elected leaders may be asked to make big decisions about Arizona's water future quickly. Unique among the seven Colorado River Basin states, Arizona's legislative leaders must approve any decision to alter the state's annual 2.8 million acre-foot allocation of Colorado River water.

In light of these and other fast-breaking developments, the Arizona Department of Water Resources is providing a pair of "thumbnail" outlines of the water challenges (and, yes, water advantages) facing Arizona as a state and the drought-plagued Southwestern Lower Basin states as a region. 

This week, we are highlighting, in bullet-points, some of the essentials about the current state of Arizona's water supplies (hint: yes, there are challenges; no, we are not at all in "crisis"). Next week: The challenges facing the Southwest, overall:


  • Arizona today uses less water than the state did in 1957

    In 1957, the state used approximately 7.1 million acre-feet of fresh water. In 2015, we used 6.9 million acre-feet. The explanations for how a state could increase its population by almost six million citizens and expand its economy by nearly 500 percent yet use less water are many. Urbanization and the retirement of agricultural acreage in many regions is one explanation. Passage of the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 is another. A commitment by Arizona's agricultural community to water-conserving techniques is another. A statewide, decades-long commitment by Arizona cities and counties to sensible water-use conservation certainly is one more. But the fact is what it is.

  • Approximately nine million acre feet of water is "banked" underground in the state, much of it thanks to a water-storage system unique to Arizona.

    Through a system developed in 1996 to increase utilization of the state's Colorado River entitlement, Arizona created the Arizona Water Banking Authority, which stores water in underground aquifers through a system of long-term storage credits. California began developing a similar system two years ago. That "bank" stores about 3.4 million acre feet underground, specifically for Colorado River shortages. The balance of water stored underground is stored by municipalities, water companies and others through the Underground Storage and Recovery Program, created in 1986.

  • Implementation of Gov. Doug Ducey's Arizona Water Initiative

    Almost exactly a year ago, Arizona began a two-pronged effort to ensure the certainty of the state's water supply under executive order from Gov. Ducey. In the Initiative's first "track," state water planners have identified 22 "planning areas" around Arizona, and are working with local water-users to refine water supply-and-demand challenges and identify strategies to meet demand. The second "track" is the creation of the Governor's Water Augmentation Council, which is charged with fleshing out long-term augmentation strategies and water-conservation opportunities.

  • Arizona already is contributing water to keep Lake Mead water levels from sinking to critical stages.

    Thanks to efforts by Arizona and its Colorado River partners, the chance of Lake Mead water levels falling to critical levels in 2017 is... zero. The state is on track to conserve 174,058 acre feet of water in the troubled reservoir this year alone. (Unfortunately, as we will address next week, the chances of low Lake Mead levels triggering shortages for Colorado River water-users spikes to 48 percent in 2018).


Next week: Water challenges facing the Southwest