In a note of consolation for the pain some Arizona water users will feel if Central Arizona Project supplies are cut next year, state water leaders said Thursday: It will be planned pain.
Federal officials have said it’s likely Lake Mead at the Nevada border will be low enough at the end of 2021 to trigger the first major cutback in CAP deliveries to the Arizona’s parched midsection. Arizona will lose 512,000 acre-feet of its CAP supply — almost one-third of the $4 billion project’s total supply, according to a 2019 drought contingency plan.
The vast majority of those cuts will fall upon Pinal County farmers who have taken CAP instead of pumped groundwater for 35 years. CAP is the principal drinking water source for Tucson, but the first round of cuts will have no impacts on the city’s CAP supplies.
At a virtual briefing Thursday, the heads of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they’ve known for many years that shortages will be coming and that they’ve stepped up with detailed plans for it.
They held a briefing and a followup press conference to lay out how the state's drought contingency plan will work and how Arizona's conservation efforts have at least pushed back the chance of deeper shortages by reducing demands on Lake Mead. The briefing was watched online by 627 people, a CAP spokeswoman said Friday.
They stressed the large amount of negotiation and other work that went into the 2019 drought plan. They discussed in detail how a large number of water providers, tribes and other entities offered both water supplies and money to provide relief to farmers and others whose water supplies will be cut.
As the drought plan stands, Central Arizona farmers, due to lose 320,000 feet of CAP water in 2022, will get about 105,000 of that back in water supplies from other sources. They’ll also get money from a wide variety of sources to drill wells for another 70,000 acre- feet.
A group of Phoenix-area cities and several tribes, including the Tohono O’Odham west of Tucson, stand to lose 60 percent of a separate CAP pool called Non-Indian Agricultural water, because it used to belong to farmers. They’ll get 75 percent of that back through mitigation approved under the drought plan.
"DCP involves a set of collective actions," such increased incentives for conserving water and taking reductions in deliveries from Lake Mead, that are aimed at minimizing or delaying the likelihood of crippling or catastrophic shortages, said Tom Buschatzke, the Arizona Department of Water Resources director.
"DCP was not meant to eliminate the chance of shortage at all. A shortage does not reflect the failure of DCP. it is a success," said Buschatzke. He noted that without it, Lake Mead most likely would have fallen enough to warrant a more severe shortage by now, requiring more cuts to cities and tribes than are likely in 2022.
He noted that after years of often contentious negotiations, the drought plan ultimately received overwhelming support from most key Arizona water players. That was due to the willingness of two dozen different entities including agencies, tribes and other parties to bring both water and money to the table to help mitigate the cuts' impacts, he said.
"The plan is comprised of a complex set of interlocking agreements among many parties," Buschatzke told the briefing.
In response to a reporter's question Thursday, Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke said they see no reason to plan for additional cuts beyond what the drought plan envisions before that plan expires in 2026.
There’s no need to limit population growth to hold down demands for the state’s limited and shrinking water supplies, despite calls for that from some environmentalists, Cooke and Buschatzke also said Thursday in response to another reporter's question.
Cooke said he and Buschatze use the word “pain” to describe impacts of CAP cuts because “this is a reality. This is not a pleasant thing. Even that is too soft of a description.
“Pain is related to loss in this case, the loss of a supply we’ve been accustomed to having,” Cooke said. “At this point, there’s been some temporary partial mitigation to soften the amount of pain that will be inflicted. But it doesn’t make the pain go away entirely.”
“There’s a stark difference between unexpected and unquantified pain and pain you will know — it’s like being in an accident versus being in surgery that’s elective,” Cooke said.
The cuts are necessary because Lake Mead is forecast to fall to 1,067 feet by the end of 2021. Under the 2019 drought plan, CAP will takes that first major cut in deliveries if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts in August that Mead will fall below 1,075 feet in December.
At Thursday’s briefing, Dan Bunk, a Bureau of Reclamation official, laid out a series of grim statistics showing the decline in river flows and reservoir levels.
Today, Lake Mead is at 38 percent of its total capacity and Lake Powell is at 35 percent of capacity, said Bunk, chief of the bureau's Boulder Canyon office in Boulder City, Nevada.
Lake Mead has dropped 15 to 16 feet since a year ago and Powell has dropped 35 feet in the same period, he said.
“The reason is primarily the hydrology of the river,” Bunk said.
In what’s known as water year 2019-2020, running from October through September, flows into Lake Powell were 54 percent of the average, while this year they’re forecast to be at 41 percent of average, he said.
Snowpack levels peaked this year at 89 percent of median levels. Soil moisture is at near record low levels in the river’s Upper Basin, he said.
This year is on pace to be the river’s third or fourth driest runoff season in modern-day records, he said. The 22 years of drought the basin has had since 2000 represents the driest period on record even when looking at longer-term, tree ring and other paleo records dating back 1,000 years, he said.
Because of these forecasts, and because of continued bleak forecasts for the river in 2023, water researchers Kathryn Sorensen at Arizona State University and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico have said Arizona should start looking now at how to use less water or find alternative sources. Arizona and the other river basin states are gearing up for what’s looming as extremely complex, contentious negotiations for new guidelines for the river system starting in 2026.
“There are lots of folks of course in the Colorado River Basin end elsewhere who have opinions on what ought to be done and those opinions are welcome, and there will always be a cry to do more,” Cooke replied Thursday.
“My job is as a water provider and Tom’s job is as a regulator, and part of that is to achieve a balance between folks who are accountable to meet needs of our constituents and balance that with having a sustainable supply for future generations. I think we’ve been successful in doing that so far.”
If the bureau forecasts in one of its monthly Colorado River flow studies that the worst possible forecast is for Lake Mead to fall below 1,030 feet in the upcoming two years, the various players negotiations over the river’s guidelines must reconvene to see if they need revising, Cooke said.
"Hopefully that will not happen but it could," Buschatzke said.
But Fleck, director of UNM’s Water Resources Research Center, said in an email to the Star, “It’s pretty clear that there’s a risk, with one or two more bad winters, of the bottom dropping out of the system before 2026. Arizonans and the rest of the basin’s water users need to know what our plans are if that happens.”
Sorensen noted that Cooke and Buschatzke’s agencies have no obligation to make sure people have safe, clean and reliable water at the tap. CAP is a wholesale water provider and the state water agency provides no water to customers, she noted.
“Local water providers are on the hook for that obligation, and they need to take the steps necessary, today, to make sure that alternative water supplies can be reliably delivered across their service territories if deep Colorado River shortages occur,” said Sorensen, a former city of Phoenix water director.
On growth, Buschatzke said the state’s requirement that all new developments in urban areas need a 100-year water supply to start construction acts as a “governor” on how much growth can occur. He cited the example of Pinal County where a lot of development is now on hold because of state concerns that the water supply is too limited for additional growth in some areas.
“I don’t believe we’re at the point now” where growth must be limited, Cooke added. “There is not a determination this is something that needs to happen.”
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said these attitudes amount to kicking the can down the road in dealing with a limited water supply in an arid state.
“To me, they just keep sending a message like we can continue business as usual. That is just not accurate,” said Bahr, director of the club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “They are not looking at the implications of a changing climate. They are not really thinking about what it means to ramp up all that groundwater pumping in these areas and the kind of harm that will cause.”