The United States Bureau of Reclamation, the agency tasked with managing water and power in the West, recently issued its annual projections for water levels at Lake Mead for the next two years. The report confirmed that no Lower Basin water shortage, and the mandatory cutbacks that come with that, will be imposed next year.
This is good news, in part the result of a wet winter. But it also shows the tremendous progress that has been made on water conservation in the region and the Tucson Basin.
We should use this brief reprieve to redouble our efforts to improve how we use, manage and share our limited supply of Colorado River water.
Growing up and working for years here in Arizona, I learned about leaders who made farsighted investments to plan for a secure water future. The Salt River Project. The Central Arizona Project. The 1980 Groundwater Management Act. The Arizona Water Banking Authority. Recharge facilities in Tucson. To put these pillars in place, our leaders adopted a long-term perspective, collaborated, compromised and took bold action. Perhaps the defining test of this generation’s water leadership will be our ability to work together to ensure the health of Lake Mead and the entire Colorado River system.
Notwithstanding the current reprieve, the long-term challenge we face in the region hasn’t changed. The Colorado River — the source of 40 percent of Arizona’s water supplies and cornerstone of Western livelihoods — is suffering a 17-year drought. Basin communities remain vulnerable to shortages.
The water level at Lake Mead is likely to hover close to the trigger levels for a shortage over the next few years, and its storage capacity remains below 40 percent. Drought, rising temperatures and population growth exacerbate a fundamental problem on the Colorado River — demand for its water outstrips supply.
Arizona water stakeholders — meaning all of us — need to encourage and support the work of state governments and the Department of the Interior to complete their Drought Contingency Plans and to develop water conservation tools and programs that can address the basin’s water supply risks on an ongoing basis.
Efforts such as the System Conservation Pilot Program, which compensates those who voluntarily reduce their water use, have helped to raise Lake Mead’s elevation. Arizona has been at the cutting edge in developing new conservation agreements. A recent agreement with the Gila River Indian Community to leave a major portion of the Community’s Colorado River water in Lake Mead showed that broad partnerships benefit the entire Basin.
Tucson has also innovated, leaving 20 percent of its Central Arizona Project supply in Lake Mead this year. Even as populations continue to grow across the Southwest, we have seen that we can significantly reduce water use and continue to thrive. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation recently forecast that Colorado River water consumption in California, Nevada and Arizona in 2017 will be at its lowest since 1992. It is possible — and necessary — to get by with less water.
Even though we have avoided a shortage declaration for 2018, the work is far from over. While the current conservation efforts have been crucial, many are still in early stages, and strong demand exists for more. We need our water leaders and elected officials to continue and expand these efforts to hold off shortages and promote flexible water management.
Arizonans must urge local water agencies and state and federal leaders to stay on the course of collaboration, innovation and conservation so that we don’t have to make drastic changes that could damage our economy and way of life. When it comes to ensuring the health of the river system that sustains us, we truly are all in this together.
Kevin Moran serves as the Senior Director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Program, directing strategy and operations in the seven Colorado River Basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
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