Can Phoenix rise from the
By Michael Tobin
The state of Arizona has been in drought since 1994. In that time, its
population has almost doubled to 7.2 million people as of 2020,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The majority of that growth has
been in Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties, which cover the area
around and between Arizona’s two largest cities Phoenix and Tucson.
Both cities — along with native tribes, farmers, and municipal and
industrial users — draw a substantial portion of their water from the
Central Arizona Project, a system of canals and aqueducts that carries
water from the Colorado River, more than 300 miles to the northwest.
The canal cuts through areas like suburban Scottsdale and winds
through Arizonan countryside. In all, roughly 40 million people from
California to Wyoming to Mexico depend on the water for their lives
And it’s starting to run dry.
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made official the crisis at
Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam and one of the most
visible signs of the Colorado River’s decline. The water level in the
lake now sits about 1,068 feet above sea level, close to 200 feet
below its typical level. With the announcement came cuts to CAP’s
water supply. Early next year, supply will drop 30%.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology that was
planned for years ago, but we hoped we would never see, is here,” said
Camille Calimlim Touton, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy
commissioner, referring to the changes in the river’s flow.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park is visible at sunrise at Horizon Park
as the Central Arizona Project Canal runs through Scottsdale, Arizona
on August 17, 2021.
Photographer: Caitlin O’Hara for Bloomberg Green
Arizona is one of seven states in the Colorado River Compact, a
water-sharing agreement that goes back nearly 100 years. Given the
drought conditions, in 2007 the members adopted interim guidelines to
clarify how they would share the shrinking amount of water. By 2019,
those guidelines were no longer adequate, and the states adopted the
Drought Contingency Plan, which established a series of triggers for
water reductions based on levels in Lake Mead.
Members of the Colorado River Compact are granted different levels
priority access to water in the event of a shortage much the way loan-
and bondholders get priority access to capital in the event of a
bankruptcy. Not only is Arizona among the first group to see
reductions, it will also see far greater reductions than other areas,
at least initially. A fall below 1,050 feet would trigger more cuts
that would hit a number of tribes and communities, including Phoenix
Worse may be ahead. A two-year study projects that Lake Mead will fall
below 1,030 feet by July 2023. When that happens, Arizona, California
and Nevada will have to take additional conservation measures to
prevent it from dropping below 1,020 feet.
There’s a hierarchy of users within CAP, as well. Farmers—who
represent just 1% of the state’s economy but use 74% of its water—will
bear the brunt of the first cuts. “I have a feeling residents in
cities won’t feel this in the tap for a very long time,” said John
Fleck, director of water resources at the University of New Mexico.
They won’t be spared higher costs due to the limited supply, however.
The Central Arizona Water Conservation District will increase rates
20% next year to make up for lost agriculture revenue, according to
Fitch Ratings, one of the big three credit ratings agency.
Recreational facilities—particularly golf courses—may also have to
adjust their water usage.
By 2040, the Phoenix metro area will be home to an estimated
6.5 million people, according to projections from the Arizona Office
of Economic Opportunity. That continued growth will come at the
expense of farming, Fleck said.
Cullom, Colorado River Programs Manager at the Central Arizona
Project, at headquarters in Deer Valley, Phoenix, Arizona on August
Photographer: Caitlin O’Hara for Bloomberg Green
“That's the choice Arizona has,” he said. “It can't be a growing
metropolis and have hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated
agriculture in the central state.”
Negotiators in the 1920s over-estimated the amount of water available
in the river, Fleck said, by basing their supply calculations on data
from just the few years prior, which had been wetter than average.
While there were some contemporaneous studies showing that available
water was likely to be less than policymakers’ estimates, that
research was largely ignored. “People were just looking to get a deal
done,” he said.
In 2026, the 2007 guidelines will formally expire, necessitating a new
water-sharing agreement. “What’s different when developing the new
rules is: How do we address the economic, environmental and in many
ways human health needs of 40 million people who share the Colorado
River in the face of a hotter, dryer future?” said Chuck Collum, CAP’s
program manager for the river.
This time, negotiators will be entering with accurate data and clear
eyes. “Almost 30 years is a very long time to be at the levels we’ve
had,” said Terry Goddard, CAP’s board president and a former mayor of
“Realism is critical here,” he said of the upcoming talks. Arizonans
“need to use the first rule of holes: when you’re in a hole, stop
digging. Any future expansion of water use is off the table.”
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