One month after the U.S. Secretary of the Interior announced Arizona will have to give up 18% of its normal allotment of Colorado River Water due to a shortage, water experts gathered at two conferences to discuss the state’s future last week.
Although this summer’s monsoons have been welcomed, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the state has been in a drought since the mid to late 1990s and “one wet winter is not enough to rehydrate the soil and vegetation, which have been receiving less than average precipitation for over 20 years.” Instead, for the drought to be officially declared over, “a series of above average precipitation events, especially during winter and specifically in the form of snow, are needed.”
But Arizona isn’t alone. The announcement itself was enacted because Lake Mead’s water, the largest reservoir in the county, which provides water for 25 million people throughout Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico and is fed by the Colorado River, is at historic lows. Arizona itself gets about 40% of its water from the Colorado River.
Because of complex water rights laws and seniority rights, the water cuts, which the federal government measures in tiers of water shortage as less water is available, means that in “Tier One” farmers in Pinal County will be allotted less water to irrigate their fields.
During a virtual conference hosted by the Arizona Capitol Times on September 14 called “The Future of Less Water is Now,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that cut would mean Pinal County farmers would have to reduce their acreage of farmers land by about 30 to 40%.
During another virtual conference about water and the effects of the water shortage on the state called the Annual Meeting Water Conference put on by the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona on September 17, Paul Orme a lawyer who specializes in water, electric power and utility law said farmers in Pinal who don’t have access to groundwater, water dug from wells, could have to take 70 to 80% of their land out of production.
In a region that produces lots of cattle and dairy products for the state, that’s a lot of farmland loss.
“We’re not going back to the days when there’s plenty of CAP water,” Buschatzke said, referring to the Central Arizona Project, a huge aqueduct that brings water from the Colorado River to central Arizona farmers.
Buschatzke said farmers he talked to in Pinal County said that once their water allocation slows down next year, their world is going to change permanently.
To mitigate the effects of the water cuts, Orme said farmers in Pinal County would have to work to build more groundwater wells, something farmers in Graham County are very familiar with.
“Ground water is a major contributor to our water supply,” said Randy Norton, director of the Graham County Cooperative Extension of the University of Arizona and the resident director of the Safford Agricultural Center.
Local farmers do not use water from the Colorado River. Instead, farmers, when they can, use water from the Gila River, which isn’t affected by the federal water shortage announcement. When water from the Gila isn’t available, Norton said local farmers rely heavily on water from groundwater from wells.
Norton said Pinal County farmers, before the construction of the Central Arizona Project aqueduct from the 1970s to the 1990s, relied on groundwater as well. Now, Norton said, farmers in Pinal County are putting some of those old wells back into use.
“The general drought affects everybody though,” Norton said. “We should be concerned about our water resources.”
In talking with older farmers and ranchers in Graham County, Norton said those who were farming in the Gila Valley in the 1930s and 1940s can attest to the dry spell the valley experienced in that decade. Norton compares that dry spell to now, in contrast to the 1970s to the 1990s when the valley experienced healthy and good snowpacks and rains.
Others refer to it as one of the effects of climate change.
In Tier One, the water cuts will only affect farmers in Pinal County, but if Lake Mead and the Colorado River’s water supply continue to shrink, Tier Two and Tier Three could affect more communities.
“If this drought continues,” said Ed Gerak, the executive director of the Arizona Power Authority at the Annual Meeting Water Conference, “We could be seeing 27 to 40% loss of energy compared to 2020” coupled with a 44% or more rate increase by 2027.
Gerak said 90 to 93% of power to homes in the state is powered by the Arizona Power Authority, which is allotted a portion of the hydro-electric power provided by the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam.
To prevent that from happening, or at least mitigate its effects, Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project said during “The Future of Less Water” event the state is discussing large projects to access more water, including expensive and expansive projects like building water pipelines from the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River to Arizona and recycling and reusing waste water.
Buschatzke said the state is also in discussions with the Mexican government to possibly build a large international ocean water desalination plant in Mexico, which would turn seawater into freshwater.
Joe Gysel, the President of EPCOR USA, the utilities management company for the state, said regular Arizonans would have to eventually be asked to use less water as well.
“We know how to handle serious water shortages,” said Terry Goddard, the president of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board while introducing the panel, “We pull together and find answers.”