The odds of a Central Arizona Project shortage by next year have risen thanks to an extraordinarily warm and dry March in the mountains that feed the Colorado River with runoff.
The continued drought is also about to lower Lake Mead at the Nevada border to its lowest level since the Great Depression for the third time in five years. By Sunday, the lake should sink below 1,080.19 feet in elevation, where it reached in its last record low level back in August 2014, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials say.
In hosting a public workshop on CAP shortages this week, state and CAP officials noted that Arizona is not yet in a water crisis, although a shortage will cause the project's water rates to rise sharply.
That's because any shortage that will hit this state in the near future won't affect cities and Indian tribes -- only farms and artificial groundwater recharge operations, for the most part. Cities and tribes probably won't see cuts for at least another five years, said CAP and Arizona Department of Water Resources officials at the Phoenix workshop.
But because CAP will have fewer total customers sharing the project's fixed operating costs, the cost of project water sold to Tucson and other cities would rise up to 25 percent, project officials say, although that increase could be phased in.
State and CAP officials also note that Arizona's water situation is nowhere near as dire as in California, whose governor this month ordered major cuts in urban water use across the state due to its ongoing drought.
One key reason for Arizona's better position is the plethora of steps the state has taken over the years to prepare for shortage. But another is that Arizona, by comparison, has been lucky. Snowpack in California has taken a far bigger hit in the past four years than in the Upper Colorado Basin that supplies CAP, a top CAP official acknowledged this week.
Now, the potential for CAP shortages should signify the risks all water users in the river basin face if the system isn't made more healthy, said Chuck Cullom, CAP's Colorado River program manager.
"Because we don't have a crisis on the Colorado River, we have the opportunity" to address the river's ongoing issues, he said.
In January, the bureau estimated the risks of shortage in 2016 at 21 percent and 2017 at 54 percent. CAP officials expect the risks to rise but no formal bureau projections have been posted yet.
Read more in Saturday's print edition.