Climate change, extractive industries and population growth threaten New Mexico’s water supplies, especially for indigenous communities. We talk to advocate Julia Bernal about potential solutions to these inequities.
Julia Bernal Julia Bernal is an expert and advocate on New Mexico water issues. Her work focuses on oil and gas development. She is an enrolled tribal member at Sandia Pueblo and is also from Taos Pueblo and the Yuchi-Creek Nations of Oklahoma. Starts at 1:05
Momentum is building for a unique interstate deal that aims to transform wastewater from Southern California homes and business into relief for the stressed Colorado River. The collaborative effort to add resiliency to a river suffering from overuse, drought and climate change is being shaped across state lines by some of the West’s largest water agencies.
Southern California’s giant wholesaler, Metropolitan Water District, claims a multi-billion-dollar water recycling proposal will not only create a new local source for its 19 million customers, but allow it to share part of its Colorado River supply with other parched river partners already facing their own cutbacks. To advance what would become the nation’s largest wastewater recycling facility, Metropolitan is securing financial aid from other major Colorado River users in Nevada and Arizona in return for giving them portions of its river supply. Amid critically low reservoir levels and the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River, water managers and experts are touting the interstate deal as a prime example of the team effort required to safeguard the future of this iconic Southwestern river and the people who rely on it.
“It’s a really interesting and innovative approach around partnerships,” said Heather Cooley, research director with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water policy center. “Something we haven’t yet seen.”
Thus far the project appears long on support, but there are some potential impediments, such as whether the next set of river operating guidelines due in place by 2026 will allow the partners’ proposed long-term interstate water exchanges. Additionally, California regulators must clear the way for Metropolitan and others in the state to put the recycled supply directly into the drinking water system.
Aid for the struggling Colorado
Metropolitan pitched the ambitious wastewater recycling proposal more than a decade ago, but the project gained steam recently amid increasingly dry conditions across two of its key water sources in California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado River Basin. Water interests along the lower Colorado River Basin have for several years discussed how they might augment the river’s shrinking flows. As it turned out, the Lower Basin’s next potential augmentation project is being hatched more than 200 miles away near the coast of California.
Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources have agreed to spend up to a combined $12 million to assist Metropolitan with environmental review, almost half of the total planning cost. If the project isn’t built, or if operating agreements aren’t finalized, Metropolitan would refund the agencies’ contributions. However, if the Nevada and Arizona agencies stay on to help build the final project, they will gain to-be-determined slices of Metropolitan’s annual share of Colorado River water.
The partnering agencies are currently grappling with major cuts to their own Colorado River supply, and more are on the horizon.
Last summer, the Bureau of Reclamation declared a first-ever shortage in the Lower Colorado Basin, requiring Arizona to slash its annual take of the river by 18 percent and Nevada by 7 percent in 2022. But the mandated cuts have done little to protect water levels at the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and now federal officials are on the verge of implementing a fresh round of unprecedented reductions that stand to affect supply for the Lower Basin states.
Metropolitan’s assistant general manager calls the deal a win-win for Southern California and the Southwest.
“The idea of the program is that in return for their co-investment to make this facility a reality, we would back off some of our Colorado supply,” Deven Upadhyay said. “It becomes one component of potential augmentation on the river to help others out.”
Boosting water security
At full capacity, Metropolitan’s wastewater recycling plant could produce up to 168,000 acre-feet a year. However, Upadhyay said Metropolitan doesn’t plan to make a corresponding amount of its river share available to the out-of-state investors.
But gaining even a sliver of Metropolitan’s Colorado River supply could boost water security for arid Arizona and Nevada.
“We’re at a point in this Basin where we can’t afford to not look at reasonable ideas,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Contract details haven’t been finalized but Pellegrino estimates SNWA could secure between 25,000-35,000 additional acre-feet annually, or around 10 percent of its yearly river apportionment. In Las Vegas, one acre-foot of water is enough to serve two households for more than a year, though officials are continually striving to reduce per capita water use.
Meanwhile SNWA, which relies heavily on Lake Mead to serve its more than 2 million customers in the fast-growing Las Vegas area, appears wholly interested in seeing the project through. It has already earmarked up to $750 million for Metropolitan’s proposal or other recycling projects. Such a major investment would require a long-term operating contract potentially in the 20- to 30-year range, Pellegrino said.
The partnership also figures to afford some long-term water security for Arizona, which takes the biggest hit of any state when shortages are declared on the Colorado River. Currently Arizona is grappling with how to cut 512,000 acre-feet and it faces further reductions if Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,045 feet and a Tier 2 shortage is triggered, a scenario the Bureau of Reclamation projects could happen by May 2023.
Gaining reliable access to Metropolitan’s river allotment could help Arizona address growing demand from municipal and industrial users, said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. Porter applauded the multi-state collaboration, saying the recycling project and other augmentation ideas, like a proposed binational desalination plant along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, could add flexibility to a system that serves 40 million people from Denver to San Diego and irrigates more than 4 million acres of farmland.
“It’s a huge amount of water,” Porter said of the potential yield of Metropolitan’s project for urban Southern California. “That’s one more community that relies on the Colorado River that has another degree of resilience.”
A promising leap in reuse
California already has a rich legacy of turning wastewater into high-quality water suitable for a variety of uses including agricultural, groundwater recharge and outdoor irrigation. In 2020 the state used more than 700,000 acre-feet in recycled water, much of it going to golf courses, farms and some indirect potable uses. But experts say California can greatly expand the output through a recycling technology Metropolitan is currently ginning up support for.
Deemed “direct potable reuse,” the method treats wastewater through a three-step purification process involving membrane bioreactors, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light disinfection. Unlike conventional systems where treated wastewater is put into underground basins until needed such as how Orange County handles it, direct potable reuse supplies could go straight into the drinking water system.
Direct potable reuse, however, is not currently permitted in California, but the State Water Resources Control Board is expected to finalize regulations by December 2023. To prove to regulators and the public that the process is safe and viable, Metropolitan has been compiling water quality data from a demonstration facility in Carson since 2019.
The technology is a great match with a county like Los Angeles where most of the treated wastewater currently goes into the ocean, said Cooley, with the Pacific Institute. With imported water becoming increasingly unreliable, she said it was critical for Southern California to pursue new recycling projects, noting the region currently reuses only 29 percent of its effluent.
“There are lots of opportunities if we start thinking outside the box more and really look beyond individual agency service areas,” Cooley said. “We’re going to have to do more of that to address the challenges that we now face.”
Once California gives the green light, Metropolitan says it will build a facility near the demonstration facility in Carson that could produce up to 150 million gallons a day of potable water or enough to serve more than 500,000 households, using wastewater from a nearby plant operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Purified water from the new recycling plant would be delivered to four of the region’s groundwater basins for later use and two of Metropolitan’s existing treatment plants via approximately 60 miles of new pipelines for further distribution in its service area.
Overcoming sticker shock
Neither construction nor the new water will be cheap.
In 2018 Metropolitan pegged construction costs at $3.4 billion, but inflation could spike the final price tag to $4 billion by the 2032 projected completion date. As for water prices, Metropolitan currently charges its member agencies around $1,100 per acre-foot of treated water; the new supply will likely run more than $1,800 per acre-foot.
Upadhyay, the Metropolitan official, downplayed the difference by saying cost concerns are relatively minor compared to the damaging effects climate change is having on the Colorado River and Sierra Nevada watersheds it relies on for imported water. He added the agency is hoping to reduce the impact on member agencies with contributions from the out-of-state partners. In addition, it has asked the California Legislature to contribute $500 million. Metropolitan also is exploring the possibility of similar partnerships with users of California’s State Water Project, but no contracts have been signed, Upadhyay said.
“It’s not like we can go out and acquire more imported supply,” Upadhyay said. “Going forward, we really need to be looking here at home.”
That sentiment is shared among some agricultural interests in the basin, including Bart Fisher, vice president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District Board of Trustees. Fisher, who farms on the west side of the Colorado River near Blythe, Calif., called urban water recycling efforts the “wave of the future” and noted Palo Verde farmers have been utilizing water reuse techniques for decades.
“These urban projects have major implications for the Lower Basin,” he said. “It will alleviate some of the pressure we are feeling.”
Finding ways to work together
It’s unclear whether current operating guidelines for the river allow the sort of interstate exchange being proposed. But the partners say the concept shares ties with the intent of previously enacted conservation programs like the 2007 Intentionally Created Surplus, a water banking program intended to boost storage in Lake Mead. They hope guidance for interstate exchanges will be explicitly included in the next set of river operating guidelines that have to be finalized by 2026.
“It would behoove all of us to have a candid conversation in the renegotiations about that, make sure we have the rules spelled out,” said Pellegrino, SNWA deputy general manager.
The 20-plus year megadrought is forcing all users in the Lower Basin to get creative in developing ways to stretch their shares of the Colorado River. And the clock is ticking.
Last month water levels at Lake Powell fell to a historic low and are still hovering near the minimum elevation level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate electricity for more than 5 million homes and businesses across the West. The Bureau of Reclamation expects the combined storage at Lake Powell and Lake Mead to drop below 30 percent by late 2022 due to declining inflows of runoff.
Metropolitan’s wastewater recycling plant won’t cure all the Lower Basin’s myriad water troubles. But Colorado River veterans say the proposal is a welcome sign of progress, nonetheless.
“It’s good to see this multi-state collaboration and that’s what we do need,” said Porter, with Arizona State’s Kyl Center. “It’s better for everyone if we can find these ways to work together.”
Among the goals of Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan was to focus more attention on “non-consumptive” water uses — environmental and recreation water needs — through stream management planning.
The basic idea of a stream management plan, or SMP, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is when stakeholders convene to evaluate the ecological conditions of their local river to identify flow needs to support environmental and recreational water uses.
The goal was to turn some attention on non-consumptive water needs and try to address the gap between how much water is in the stream and how much is needed for a healthy environment and a good recreational experience.
“The environment and recreation are too critical to Colorado’s brand not to have robust objectives; a strong Colorado environment is critical to the economy and way of life,” reads the Water Plan, referring to the need for SMPs. The Water Plan’s objective was to cover 80% of locally prioritized rivers with an SMP by 2030.
But according to a recent River Network report on the 26 SMPs completed or in progress statewide as of September 2021, in some cases the process seems to have been taken over by agricultural interests, watering down what was supposed to have been a tool specifically for the benefit of non-consumptive water uses.
“A pillar of CWCB’s grant guidance for stream management planning is to ‘identify flows needed to support environmental and recreational water uses,’” the report reads. “This pursuit — as a primary SMP focus — has not been consistent and has proven problematic and even unpopular among participating stakeholders.”
Most SMPs evaluate flow regimes, but don’t make recommendations for a specific target flow. Of all the 269 project recommendations, just 6% focused on environmental flow targets and only 1% focused on recreation flow targets. In contrast, 14% of recommendations involved agriculture diversion reconstructions, the largest percentage of recommendations.
And although there are many recommendations for projects like stream restoration (11%) and recreation enhancements (7%), putting a number on how much water a stream needs for environmental or recreation purposes is rare. Projects tend to focus on physical modifications to the stream channel and not necessarily how to get more water into that stream channel.
“This was something I was afraid was going to happen,” said Ken Neubecker, retired Colorado projects director for American Rivers and former Colorado Basin Roundtable member. “I am a little disappointed. Yes, you’ve got to have the other stakeholders engaged, but the original intent with stream management planning was that it should primarily be addressing the environment and recreation needs of a certain stream reach.”
Bringing ag to the table
Nicole Seltzer is the Colorado River basin program director with River Network, the organization that produced the report and which works to protect and restore rivers. She said there are multiple factors as to why more environmental flow recommendations haven’t yet come out of the SMP process, including a lack of stream gauge data on some tributaries. But a main reason is because it’s a sensitive topic that has to be navigated carefully.
“Sometimes you have to let go of the conversations that are super divisive in order to keep your group together and keep making progress on other things,” Seltzer said. “I think that we’ve seen that the conversation around environmental flow goals and how you meet those goals is sensitive and it has the ability sometimes to derail the entire process.”
That divisiveness reveals the tension between traditional water users like agricultural producers, who take water out of the rivers, and recreational and environmental water advocates, whose goal is to keep water in the river. Environmental and recreation groups have historically not played as big a role in water planning as agricultural and municipal water managers. The SMP process was supposed to be a way to legitimize and enhance their role.
But because agriculture controls the oldest water rights and makes up the largest slice of water use in Colorado — 86% according to numbers provided by the state — some SMP stakeholder groups realized they couldn’t make progress without including agriculture representatives.
“Our organization very quickly realized if you’re going to get anywhere environmentally, you don’t just want to operate in a vacuum,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River basin outreach coordinator for environmental group Trout Unlimited, and a Colorado Basin Roundtable member. “You’ve got to bring your municipal and agriculture folks to the table.”
In some cases, what started out as an SMP morphed into an IWMP — Integrated Water Management Plans — so named because they integrate the “non-consumptive” environmental and recreation water uses and the “consumptive” agricultural uses.
The Colorado Basin Roundtable adopted the term IWMP in place of SMP in 2016 and defined the primary goal of an IWMP as “identifying opportunities to meet environmental flow needs along with needs of agriculture, municipal, industrial and residential water users.” The roundtable’s choice to use the term IWMP was in response to concerns that stream management planning could emphasize environmental and recreational water needs in a way that might negatively impact agricultural water users and other interests.
The IWMP undertaken by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council was one of these that started out as an SMP and then expanded the scope to incorporate agricultural interests. The Book Cliff, South Side and Mount Sopris conservation districts tackled the agriculture portion, which included an agricultural water use analysis and inventories of 59 ditches. The individual results of the ditch inventories were not made publicly available, despite being publicly funded.
The final action plan outlines 55 recommendations, including six which it says address protection of flows. These include doing a survey of boaters and anglers to see what their flow preferences are, installing more stream gauges on local tributaries of the Colorado River and supporting the Colorado River District as they work to keep water on the Western Slope.
The idea was that a watershed council, environmental group or other organization would come up with a way to prioritize local streams and get to work creating SMPs for 80% of the ones they deem to be high priority. But since there was no standardized way to do this across the state, streams in areas with environmentally focused watershed organizations tend to have SMPs, while those without them don’t.
Many of the projects recommended in the SMPs are “multi-beneficial,” meaning they benefit multiple water user groups: agriculture, environment, recreation, municipal, industrial. Checking more category boxes for a project can sometimes aid in getting grant funding.
Often, the thinking around a diversion reconstruction or other improvements to irrigation infrastructure is that it can help irrigators more effectively get water out of the river. At the same time, a project could also create a safer passage for boaters or better fish habitat. But these multi-beneficial projects can also have a downside.
“There is an argument that focusing on multibenefit projects that primarily benefit water users dilutes environmental and recreational flow objectives,” the River Network report reads.
And the tools for boosting river flows are few. While some SMPs are motivated by needing to meet federal requirements, for example keeping enough water in the chronically dry 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley for the benefit of endangered fish, this is not common, according to the report.
“In most communities, the only options for pursuing flow-driven outcomes are expensive infrastructure (e.g. ditch piping) or tools for leaving excess water in the river (e.g. water leasing),” the report reads.
The idea is that when irrigators have more efficient diversions, they don’t need to take as much water from the river, leaving more for the benefit of the environment and recreation. But whether that actually happens or not is unclear.
CWCB Watershed Protection Director Chris Sturm said that addressing flow needs is not the only metric of success for an SMP or a project. If a project results in any kind of physical benefit to the stream, it can be considered a win. He said by and large the SMPs are accomplishing what they set out to do.
“Stream management planning is not all about identifying what the flow needs are,” Sturm said. “I think what our stakeholders are doing is they are finding a path towards trusting each other enough to get to those discussions about flow needs. And it’s being done in a way where they are partnering on projects like diversion reconstructions, which is why you see so many of them.”
Although low flow is not the only issue for the environment and recreation communities, it is often the biggest; other problems like high water temperatures are partly a result of there not being enough water in the river.
“I would say recreation in Colorado is more threatened by diminishing streamflow,” said Hattie Johnson, southern Rockies stewardship director with American Whitewater. “You can fix the navigation hazard, but if there’s no water in the river to float down it, it doesn’t matter. I think the flow aspect of it is much more dire.”
Agriculture has the bulk of the water
Raymond Langstaff is the president of the Bookcliff Conservation District, which extends roughly between Glenwood Springs and Parachute, mostly on the north side of Interstate 70. His organization, along with the Mount Sopris and South Side conservation districts, led the agriculture portion of the IWMP process for the Middle Colorado region.
“One of the reasons we got involved is because we have a target on our back for water,” Langstaff said. “The bottom line is ag has the bulk of the water. When people need water, where are they going to go? They are going to go to ag to get the water.”
And agricultural water users are feeling the squeeze from drought and climate change too. Langstaff, a retired engineer with the U.S. Forest Service, has a place on Dry Rifle Creek that has been in his family since 1951. He irrigates about 22 acres of grass and alfalfa with water from the Grass Valley Canal and sells the bales of hay to horse owners.
This year, the number of days he is allowed to use water from the local irrigation water project dropped from 50 to 35 this year. If the water gets cut more, he may do one fewer cutting of hay. And irrigators on the south side of the Colorado River have it even worse.
“If you live on Divide Creek, chances are you will be out of water somewhere around the Fourth of July,” he said.
One of the ideas behind the ditch inventory, in which irrigators got an analysis of their system and potential areas of improvement, was that they would result in efficiency projects that would benefit the irrigator and could also leave more water in streams for the benefit of the environment.
But Langstaff is skeptical that agriculture projects will automatically lead to more water in streams. If agricultural producers can more easily get access to their full water right by making efficiency improvements, they will probably take advantage of that by using all of their water, he said.
“It’s a false hope they might be able to free up a little more water to leave in the river,” Langstaff said. “If you get more efficient, you get to water more times. And it’s their water and they have the right to use it.”
The results of a 2019 survey about SMPs by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water Network seems to confirm that sentiment. More than half of respondents said the amount of water available to them was a challenge. Survey responses also indicated that more acres would be irrigated and more acres would be more fully irrigated if more water was available for diversion.
If environmental and recreation groups want more water to stay in the river, it will require paying agricultural water users, Langstaff said.
“If you want ag to let water stay in the stream, you’re going to have to compensate somehow,” he said. “If you’re in the ag business exclusively, you need every nickel and dime.”
A way forward
The actions of diverters often have the biggest influence on the health of rivers and the quantity of water in them. And as the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries continue to decline due to climate change, there will be even less water to go around.
In the hierarchy of water uses in Colorado, environmental and recreation interests have taken a back seat to traditional water uses like agriculture. Under the bedrock principle of Colorado water law, prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — typically agricultural water rights — get first use of the river.
The only way to secure a water right specifically for the environment is through an instream flow right, which is held exclusively by the CWCB to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” Although the state has ISF rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments around Colorado, they date to the 1970s and later, making them very junior to most agricultural and municipal water rights, and thus limiting their ability to keep water in the stream.
As for recreation, a handful of communities around the state hold what’s known as a recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, around which they have built a whitewater park or play waves primarily for kayakers. But in a nod to traditional water users, these rights often end up making concessions to future water development. Two bills floated by recreation proponents that aimed to secure water for recreation purposes have stalled in 2021 and 2022.
But most environmental and recreation groups still say that cooperation among all water users within the existing constraints is the best way forward and insist they are making inroads.
“If you’re an environmental advocate you do the best operating in the system that exists, and the system that exists is Colorado water law,” Van Gytenbeek said. “You have to work with water rights holders to see if there’s flexibility in their operations. It’s not a perfect world and it can be very frustrating if you are a kayaker or a fisherman. But we are making progress by collaborating.”
On a sunny day in late October, a handful of people from Picuris Pueblo drove to Carson National Forest and parked their vehicles off a dirt road that reaches into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They walked east for a few minutes, to Alamitos Creek, some 16 miles from the pueblo’s boundary. Among them was the pueblo’s governor, Craig Quanchello, who led the way through a grove of conifers and aspens on the eastern slope of Jicarita Peak. Though Quanchello and his companions, including other members of the tribal administration, had heard rumors about what they had come to see, they were not entirely prepared for it.
If nature had its way, Alamitos Creek would merge with the Rio Pueblo, which flows through Picuris Pueblo. But a diversion on the stream at 9,800 feet above sea level shunts its water into a ditch and over a mountain pass instead. The creek drops into the Mora Valley near the town of Cleveland, where livestock graze in scenic pastures, huge piles of firewood are heaped beside homes, and an abundance of old adobe architecture creates the sense of a place strongly connected to its past. The water from the Alamitos is absorbed by fields and gardens there.
Over the past 12 or so years, irrigators in Cleveland have transformed the diversion from a set of leaky wooden boards to a wall of stacked sandbags to an embankment of large rocks. At the end of September, a month before the team from Picuris visited, the berm had been plastered over with cement. There was no opening, not even a headgate, in the direction of the Rio Pueblo. While water from the Alamitos coursed down the ditch toward Cleveland, the creek bed that runs to the river was dry.
Seeing the cement work for the first time, a palpable swell of outrage arose within the group. It was one more insult to the tribe, one further violation of their sacred lands, one more unilateral move by irrigators to assert permanent control over water that the pueblo leadership claims has been stolen from them for the past 200 years.
“It’s time to take it into our own hands,” Quanchello said, meaning destroy the diversion with heavy machinery and redirect the Alamitos back into its natural channel. “If Mora wants to fight, so be it.
“It’s going to get dirty,” he added soberly. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”
A few weeks later, on or just before Nov. 13, the cemented berm was smashed open. A hundred or so yards away, a huge mound of dirt and rocks had been piled in front of the headgate for a different diversion, one that sends water to the community of Holman, also in the Mora Valley. No one has claimed responsibility for the potentially illegal act of vandalism. “Everyone knows who has motive,” said John Romero, water rights division director at the Office of the State Engineer (OSE), which manages New Mexico’s waters. “But I’m not going to speculate.”
The steep divide
There are three diversions that take water away from the Rio Pueblo watershed and deliver it to the Mora Valley. All of them pre-date New Mexico statehood, as does Picuris Pueblo’s opposition to them. The one on the Alamitos feeds two acequias, or irrigation ditches, in Cleveland, and was built sometime around 1820 — three decades before the area was ceded by Mexico to the United States. The second diversion, created in 1865, moves water from the Rito la Presa, over a steep divide and into two acequias in the tiny hamlet of Chacon. The third, which became operational in 1882, captures the Rito Angostura and sends it to Holman. Together, they irrigate some 1,900 acres in the agricultural-rich Mora Valley, serving 143 users, or parciantes.
Picuris wants to see all three diversions dismantled and the streams returned to their natural courses. This could bring substantially higher flows to the pueblo, where about 250 of some 385 tribal members live on the same land that their ancestors have called home for the past millennium. Doing so, however, could critically impact the residents in the Mora Valley who have relied on these waters for generations, today primarily to grow hay.
“Without this supplemental water, we wouldn’t make it,” said 79-year-old Eufracio Vigil, whose family has been in Chacon for five generations and who has personally helped maintain the local acequias since the 1950s.
While the dispute over the diversions is emblematic of simmering water conflicts across the drought-stricken American West — as well as broader conversations about righting historical wrongs against Indigenous peoples — it is also uniquely New Mexican. Complex and vague water laws regarding pueblos, acequias and natural streams make the prospect of pursuing a legal settlement monumentally daunting for all sides. The possibility of reaching a sharing agreement, in which Mora would receive less water but Picuris wouldn’t get it all, has been rejected by the pueblo and some of the irrigators.
‘El agua es vida’
In the high desert valleys of New Mexico, the saying “el agua es vida” — water is life — is a self-apparent truism. Where water flows, things grow, creating green ribbons that trace the outlines of rivers and streams. These fertile floodplains are often framed by dry, rocky hills and mesas speckled with hardy piñon trees, juniper and cacti.
Beginning in the late 16th century, Spanish colonists created a system of gravity-fed acequias in New Mexico to grow food and fodder. About 700 acequias currently operate in the state, according to the New Mexico Acequia Association. In many communities, they are seen as crucial not only to the survival of fields and orchards, but also to centuries-old local traditions — to the very soul of a place. The annual spring limpia (ditch cleaning); the opening of headgates; the dialogues about water-sharing arrangements in times of drought; the sight of water flowing like capillaries through towns, around farm plots — or in the case of Las Trampas, down a flume carved from tree trunks — are all part of what makes New Mexico New Mexico, especially in its small villages.
Typically, each acequia operates within a single watershed: water is channeled from a river to fields that lie alongside it. All of the water remains within the same hydrological system. But the three diversions at the heart of the dispute between Picuris and irrigators in the Mora Valley are different. The irrigators take water that belongs to the Rio Pueblo — which is part of the Rio Grande Basin — and move it to the Mora River, in the Arkansas River Basin. This strikes Picuris as ecologically and spiritually criminal.
“They’re killing the land, killing the environment,” Quanchello said at Alamitos Creek. He made a sweeping gesture to indicate the entirety of the landscape: “This is our homeland. It’s all significant to us,” he said. “Our herbs and traditional medicines and spiritual plants are being depleted because they need water. You can’t just replace this stuff.”
“Water is vital from a spiritual perspective,” said Picuris Tribal Interpreter Cecilia Shields, one of the group at the creek with Quanchello. “And these waters, which flow from around Serpent Lake, are particularly sacred. It’s a place of prayer, a place where our people pilgrimage, our center place,” she explained. “The whole of Jicarita Peak and what the mountain holds are all sacred, and to remove things from it” — as the diversions do — “is to cut off the balance. The people of Mora taking the water, it’s a desecration. It’s heartbreaking.
“We have no issues with anyone on our same watershed,” Shields added. “Of course we’ll share with them, but not with users taking the water where it wouldn’t naturally go.”
Long battles, harsh betrayals
Picuris first lodged protests against the diversions to Cleveland and Chacon as early as the late 1860s. They were summarily ignored. When the Holman ditch became operational in 1882, the pueblo, with the help of Indian Agent Benjamin Thomas, promptly pursued a lawsuit in district court.
In a betrayal that stings to this day, the attorney assigned by the Department of Justice to represent Picuris in the suit simply never showed up in court. This was a “disaster” for Picuris, Malcolm Ebright — a lawyer who has worked with pueblos and acequias — wrote in a 2017 article for the New Mexico Historical Review. Unable to find anyone willing to take their case, it was ultimately dismissed in 1885.
Records from the lawsuit contribute both clarity and confusion to the history of the diversions. While filings in the case clearly stated Picuris’ objections to all three ditches and the harm they were causing the pueblo, the remedy they sought specifically requested an injunction only against the one to Holman. Additionally, the Indian agent wrote that Antonio Olguín, who founded the community of Cleveland, “was allowed [by Picuris] to take this water” when he masterminded the first diversion. Irrigators in Cleveland today take those words as proof that they did not steal the water. It is a position with which Ebright, a noted author of books on pueblo history, tends to agree. “There doesn’t appear to have been any protest against it at the time of construction,” he said in an interview.
Picuris flatly rejects this conclusion, pointing out that there is nothing in the historical record that corroborates Thomas’ statement. “There is no documentation showing that we gave them any water,” Quanchello said. “And even if so, we would never have given them permission to take an entire stream! Our elders tell us that their elders had told them that our people have always wanted the water back.”
‘Difficult to convince non-Indians’
There are no simple paths forward for Picuris. Pressing their claims in court today would require filing for an adjudication to determine how much water they are legally entitled to. It’s a process that can cost millions of dollars and take decades to resolve. “Most adjudication cases outlive the judges and lawyers on them,” said Richard Hughes, a lawyer and water-rights expert who has represented several pueblos. He is currently working on cases that were first filed in the 1960s.
“Complicated cases like this one require lots of expert work — from the historical to the hydrological. It gets very expensive,” Hughes said. But, he noted, voluntary water-sharing agreements aren’t easily reached, either. “If you don’t have legal proceedings ongoing, it’s difficult to convince non-Indians that you have any leverage against them. It’s difficult to convince people who have been using this water for over a century to give up some of what they have.”
Official statistics that accurately convey just how much water is being diverted from the Rio Pueblo to the Mora River don’t exist. One former president of the Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association, however, has pored over the available data, comparing flows on the Rio Pueblo with flows into the diversions. “Fifteen to 20 percent of all the water that should be going into the Rio Pueblo is going to Mora,” Robert Templeton concluded. But the reality is worse than those numbers imply: “In drought years, over 50 percent of the water goes to Mora during the peak irrigating season of June and July — and climate change means more drought years.” He estimates that “more than half a million acre-feet of water” has been diverted over the years — which could fill a lake the size of the Santa Fe Plaza to a depth of 94 miles.
Templeton’s assessment is not without its critics. Among them is Romero of the OSE. “Robert Templeton interpreted the flow data incorrectly,” Romero said in an interview, though he couldn’t point to any specific errors in Templeton’s calculations.
What matters, Romero said, is not what percentage of the Rio Pueblo’s natural flow is being diverted, but how much water Picuris is actually receiving, and whether that’s sufficient to meet the pueblo’s needs. To create a fair solution, “You have to look at the whole system,” which would include all of the water in all the tributaries feeding the river, he said. “We need more streamflow data over a longer period of time. We’re trying to find out how much boost the [diverted] streams would provide if added to the Rio Pueblo. Right now, I really have no idea.”
First come, first served
When there’s not enough water to go around, rights to it are allocated on a first come, first served basis: Whoever has been using it the longest has a stronger claim than those who began using it later. In times of drought, the “senior” can make a priority call, and the “juniors” may then have to cut their usual allotment.
Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, whose family has lived in the Mora Valley since the 1860s, put it bluntly: “There is no debate. Picuris has senior water rights. They’ve been here since time immemorial.” As Garcia sees it, “The people on the acequias don’t understand water law — that you can’t fight with the pueblos the way you can fight with other acequias.”
The president of Acequia Encinal, in Cleveland, acknowledges that Picuris has senior rights, while staunchly defending the diversions. From his home overlooking a sweep of fields irrigated by the ditch, 83-year-old Antonio Medina said, “I believe that Mora is pretty conscious of pueblo rights. And they’ve always been very respectful of our rights, and very kind.” As proof, he said that Picuris has not once made a priority call. (Respect has nothing to do with it, according to tribal interpreter Shields: If Picuris made a priority call, it would legitimize Mora’s claim to the water, and the pueblo would rather struggle with less water than validate the diversions.)
There was an attempt in recent years to create a task force to explore the possibility of soothing tensions with the pueblo, comprised of representatives from all the Mora acequias fed by the diversions, Garcia noted. But it collapsed due to infighting, amid accusations that they were stealing water from each other.
The Cleveland diversion, which feeds the Cañoncito and Encinal acequias, now blocks water from flowing not only into the Rio Pueblo, but also into Holman’s ditch, the Acequia de la Sierra. Parciantes in Holman are furious. “Cañoncito and Encinal are robbing the ecosystem, the wetlands, Picuris and la Sierra,” said Jimmy Sanchez, a fifth-generation mayordomo (watermaster) on the Holman acequia. “They reinforced their diversion so it now takes the entire Alamitos, with nothing going to us or Picuris. Our acequia declaration, which was filed in 1935, says that la Sierra is partly fed by Alamitos. They’re taking more than their share. Picuris’ fight should be with them, not with us.”
The Cañoncito acequia leadership is unapologetic. Barbara Bradshaw, a retired nurse, has been its treasurer since 2013, the year after she moved to Cleveland with her husband Larry, a retired insurance salesman who is Cañoncito’s mayordomo. When asked how a fair resolution to the dispute might look, Barbara replied in an email, “I would say that the resolution needs to be legal and follow established New Mexico water law. Fair, like beauty, may be in the eyes of the beholder.” She added: “We are legally entitled to divert all of the water that our culvert will carry.”
Romero of the OSE disagrees. “Barbara is wrong,” he said. “They can’t just take the whole stream. Holman and the Rio Pueblo have a right to some of that water.” The OSE is going to take action, Romero continued. “We’re getting our legal team together. We’re going to do something. It’s the right thing to do.”
The OSE’s intentions, however, have not been communicated to Picuris, where official inaction has instilled a sense that the Mora irrigators can act with impunity. “Who does enforcement?” Quanchello asked, rhetorically. “What’s going on is blatantly wrong and no one is willing to make it right. We’re going to have to take it into our own hands.”
Everyone involved assumes that Picuris did just that when the diversions were damaged in November.
While assessing the towering mound of earth and rock recently pushed in front of his acequia’s headgate, Sanchez shook his head and spoke with a combination of anger, sadness, and bewilderment. “I don’t know why they did this to us,” he said. “I’ve said that I want to share the waters. I want peace and stability. There’s enough water to share, but Cañoncito-Encinal isn’t letting it through.”
Sharing the water, most outside observers agree, is the only way to untangle this knot. “There has to be some middle ground,” said Ebright. “That’s the traditional way of doing things in New Mexico, going back hundreds of years.”
To that end, Romero said the OSE is hoping to hold a meeting before the end of the year, to bring all of the parties together and discuss taking steps toward sharing the water equitably.
Picuris, however, is in no mood to pursue sharing agreements at the moment. “Mora got the water for the last 200 years. We’ll take it for the next 200,” said Quanchello. “Then maybe we’ll talk about sharing.”
For now, Picuris still has nothing to share. Within days of the breach of the berm, the damage was repaired, forcing Alamitos Creek toward Cleveland once again, leaving the streambed dry.
New water recycling plants, fast-acting conservation programs, and repair of leaky reservoirs and pipelines will help restore the drought-stricken Colorado River system, federal officials said Tuesday.
Those actions, along with decisions last week to send 500,000 acre-feet of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell, and to hold 500,000 acre-feet of additional water in Powell, will help stabilize the rapidly deteriorating river system.
“We are taking extraordinary actions today because now is the time to do more. We do not have time to waste,” Trujillo said.
Speaking for the first time publicly about the emergency decisions, U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said Tuesday that while the river system is struggling, there is also more money available than ever before to begin stabilizing the river, thanks to millions of dollars now available under federal infrastructure funding.
She said the water being added to Lake Powell will give federal water managers and scientists 12 months to figure out how to operate the system with significantly less water than it has ever had.
The Colorado River Basin covers seven states, as well as Mexico. The basin is divided into an Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada.
Its two largest storage reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, have been sapped by a series of ultra-dry years. Now the two lakes are at the lowest levels since they began filling, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.
Combined, the two reservoirs are less than 30% full.
Hydropower production at Lake Powell, which provides clean electricity to millions across the seven-state Colorado River Basin, has been declining for several years. As water levels have dropped, the turbines work less efficiently. This year power production sank to a new low, generating just 47% of the power it did before this 20-year-drought spell took hold in 2002.
Though the Colorado River system is struggling, for the first time agencies have enough federal funding to pay for more water conservation in Arizona, California and Nevada; to repair aging, leaky pipelines and reservoirs; and, most importantly, to build new water recycling plants, Trujillo said.
Trujillo said some $200 million in funding was set aside for critical water conservation efforts in Arizona, California and Nevada late last year, and that millions more is available for all the states in the basin under the new federal infrastructure funding approved by Congress.
“This may help us increase water recycling,” she said. “And [recycled water] may be the only source of new water we have available.”
With the coming 12-months expected to be dry again, water users are worried that no one has identified a long-term solution, or set of solutions, to bring the river back into balance.
Water For Colorado is a coalition of nine environmental organizations that advocate for sustainable water use. It said work to resolve the Colorado River crisis needs to move faster.
“A future of hotter, drier conditions has arrived. We must immediately accelerate the pace and scale of collaborative solutions to successfully reduce the basin’s long-term risks, including greater conservation by all sectors throughout the Colorado River Basin,” the coalition said in a statement.
“Our coalition is committed to identifying and developing tools to respond to extreme climatic conditions for the benefit of all within the basin so that emergency actions like the ones made today do not become the norm.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue – March 28, 2022
The Biggest Dry: Arizona, third of three reports. Read the rest of the series here.
PHOENIX – On a Saturday morning in late January a chill wind kicks up dust on the high desert ridge north of Scottsdale where wood skeletons of new homes appear above the mesquite and cactus of the Rio Verde Foothills. Along Rio Verde Drive a white tent marks the corner where Karen Nabity and Jennifer Simpson, longtime Foothills residents, collect petition signatures to head off a water emergency bearing down on them and hundreds of their neighbors.
Last year Scottsdale authorities, concerned about the effects of the megadrought and the August 2021 federal Colorado River water shortage declaration, decided to protect the city’s 241,000 residents. They issued an order under Scottsdale’s drought management plan that will bar tanker trucks from using a city-owned depot to haul water to homes outside the city limit. Rio Verde Foothills, where Nabity, Simpson and at least 500 other homeowners rely on the depot for their drinking water, falls into that category. The city set a December 31, 2022 deadline for the water shut off.
Scottsdale’s water shut down and Rio Verde Foothills’ scramble for a new supply is unique to Arizona at the moment. However, the significance of the community’s encounter with the real-life menace of drought and shrinking groundwater reserves is more than a one-off water shortage event. It is a flashing red warning that Arizona’s growth-centered economic determinism is crashing hard into severe ecological constraints.
What’s happening in the million-dollar homes of Rio Verde Foothills, one of the Phoenix metropolitan region’s choice places to live, is a future shock “buyer beware” scenario certain to be replicated over the next several decades in many other Arizona communities contending with urgent water constraints.
About 50 miles south, another scenario of 21st century Arizona is taking shape. The nearly 23,000-member Gila River Indian Community is modernizing: adding to its group of casinos, preparing to expand its irrigated farm acres, and elevating its influence in Arizona’s politics and economy. It’s doing so by virtue of one of the most secure and abundant water supplies in Arizona and the entire Southwest.
Following decades of brutal discrimination and abuse by white settlers and state authorities during which the two Gila River tribes’ rights to their historic water supply were not honored, Congress approved an agreement between the United States and the State of Arizona that essentially guarantees tribal access to 653,500 acre-feet of water per year. That amounts to 213 billion gallons, or three times more water than industry and the 1 million residents of the Tucson metropolitan region use in a year. Almost half, or 311,000 acre-feet, comes from the Colorado River. Much of the rest comes from groundwater and reservoir storage on the Salt, Verde, and Gila rivers east of Phoenix.
Tribal leaders did not respond to requests for interviews. But from previous statements by tribal leaders and in interviews with state water authorities, it is clear that the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, is using its abundant water to build a new age of wealth and influence on the 372,000-acre reservation south of Phoenix. GRIC is constructing a federally-financed irrigation network to increase farming operations to 75,000 ancestral acres from the current 35,000. It negotiated lucrative agreements to lease water to Phoenix, Chandler, and other communities. It is also marketing water that it stores in aquifers to willing suburbs and subdivision builders interested in long-term leases.
Since 2016, GRIC has played a central role in storing over 370,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, plus 130,000 more acre-feet this year to keep lake levels high enough to prevent a water shortage declaration more dire than the one the federal government issued last August. GRIC received $274 per acre-foot from the state and federal governments. In short, ample and secure water supply is the basis of the community’s plan to rebuild the vitality of its 8,000 year-old desert civilization that was ruined in the 20th century.
Arizona’s future water shock
The water-abundant and thriving Gila River Indian Community amounts to one bookend scenario of Arizona’s 21st century condition. The other bookend is the arid Rio Verde Foothills, where government decisions and meteorological disruptions trap residents in a water-related crisis that heat and drought aggravated, and state law did not anticipate.
In 1980, Arizona enacted an innovative groundwater management program intended to ensure adequate reserves of water for rapid home development and expansive population growth by designating four regions from Prescott to Tucson as Active Management Areas. (Santa Cruz, the fifth AMA, was carved out from the Tucson AMA in 1994.) The program included two important exemptions, however: its provisions did not apply to groundwater withdrawals outside of the AMAs. And within the AMA boundaries, owners of private wells that pumped less than 35 gallons per minute — in other words, many of the wells drilled for the state’s exploding residential real estate markets — did not come under state oversight.
In 1995, the law set in place a consumer protection measure to require developers building subdivisions in AMAs with six or more homes to assure buyers that their houses had a 100-year supply of water. But the requirement did not apply for residential construction projects with less than six homes. Builders constructing individual homes, or clusters of five homes or less in an AMA, avoided the 100-year water requirement. Outside the AMAs, groundwater safeguards did not apply, creating what amounted to a home construction free-for-all.
Little more than 40 years after the statute was enacted and less than 30 years after the 100-year assured water supply rules were adopted, the subdivision and private well waivers have resulted in Rio Verde’s emergency. They also influenced a boom in home construction that has caused — and continues to cause — thousands of wells to fail inside and outside of AMAs. It is clearer by the day that, without significant strengthening, the state’s water management program is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The emergence of serious instances of water shortage from Kingman in the north, to the Chino Valley north of Prescott, to Cochise County in Arizona’s southeast has prompted civic campaigns for reform. They have yet to attract sufficient legislative support.
That seems certain to change. And soon, because of climate change.
This year alone, the latest scientifically respected studies reveal a number of disconcerting findings. The megadrought that has Arizona in its tightening grip is the worst in 1200 years. Climate change is responsible for at least 40 percent of the decline in Colorado River water supplies. And the Southwest, like other desert regions, is getting steadily hotter, drier, and more dangerous. Though future weather conditions are always difficult to accurately predict, a worst-case scenario for Arizona looks like this: Population growth stops. Residents start to migrate in droves away from the stifling hot and dry state. Home values collapse. The state enters an era of relentless decline. By 2060, according to several published projections, extreme heat and water scarcity could make Phoenix one of the continent’s most uninhabitable places.
It’s not much of a reach to conclude that Arizona is at the intersection of two paths to the future. By mid-century it will be a model of desert dwelling resiliency. Or it will be a weakened civilization that is starting to waste away.
A cogent look at what to expect
When asked what the future portends, none of the senior state water management authorities interviewed for this project delivered a firm projection. But in 2014, as the megadrought was exerting its unmistakable influence on water supplies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources prepared “Arizona’s Next Century,” a well-regarded “strategic vision” for future water supply.
The report’s authors projected colliding trend lines of rapid growth and declining water supply that plainly showed that the status quo will not hold in Arizona. According to the study’s findings:
— Over 3 million more people are expected to live in Arizona by 2035, or 40 percent more than the 7.1 million who reside there today. By 2060, Arizona could be home to an additional 6 million people.
— As a result of anticipated population growth, annual water demand in Arizona will increase 1.2 million to 1.6 million acre-feet, or 17 percent to 22 percent above 2022 demand.
— By 2060, the population in the seven states served by the Colorado River, which supplied almost 40 percent of Arizona’s water until this year, could increase to 76 million, nearly double the number today.
— Demand for Colorado River water from its seven basin states is anticipated to increase by mid-century to 18 million to 20 million acre-feet, a nearly 70 percent increase from now. But due to drought, climate change, and extreme heat, the water supply from the Colorado River will drop to roughly 9.4 million acre-feet, 25 percent lower than today.
Taken as a whole, the data mean that Arizona’s share of the Colorado River will likely shrink to less than half the current 2.8 million acre-feet allotment. Arizona will rely much more heavily on its finite groundwater reserves to support population growth, residential construction, and new business starts that state officials continue to encourage. And though Arizona has stored over 13 million acre-feet of water underground to supplement supply during years of water shortage, never since statehood in 1912 has Arizona encountered such a long and deep period of water scarcity that science predicts will grow steadily more severe.
It’s not at all difficult to project that “home buyer beware” warnings will be emailed, Tweeted, Instagrammed, Tiktoked, and taped to bulletin boards in many more communities than Rio Verde Foothills, Cochise County, north Chino Valley, Kingman, and Flagstaff, where water wells are failing.
Unless, said the authors of “Arizona’s Next Century,” the state’s Native American tribes make much more of their secure yearly right to 1.9 million acre-feet available for sale or lease. And unless Arizona’s elected officials, water authorities, and engineers develop and quickly execute an array of policy changes and infrastructure projects that converge over the next generation to head off calamity.
Those steps include amending existing water laws or enacting new laws to increase water efficiency and conservation, more stringently oversee groundwater use in and outside the Active Management Areas, and make it much easier to move available water around the state. Another idea, already in place in Las Vegas and Aurora, Col. is to ban grass and “non-functional turf” because half of U.S. urban water use goes to maintaining outdoor spaces. Austin, Tex. is developing systems within its own buildings to stop flushing potable water down the toilet. Instead, the city turns wastewater into greywater for various uses inside and outdoors, a practice that could reduce demand by another half.
The Next Century authors also called for somehow increasing the state’s water supply, as it did in the 20th century. A favored proposal is to construct desalination plants. “Arizona’s future success is tethered to how effectively we continue to manage our water resources and develop new water supplies and infrastructure,” they wrote. “Yet, our present success cannot sustain Arizona’s economic development forever.”
Acting on future scenario
The response by state leaders to the 2014 study has been methodical but by no means urgent. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey formed expert committees. Finding more water is their most popular option. Last year, Ducey convinced the Legislature to invest $160 million to investigate “augmentation,” which is Arizona’s term for developing new sources of water.
This year, the governor proposed establishing a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, to pursue new supplies and also asked the Legislature for $1 billion more, framing the request around the need to build a desalination plant, perhaps in Mexican waters, to produce 250,000 acre-feet a year.
Other ideas for securing Arizona’s water supply — regulating groundwater use in rural areas, metering private water wells, increasing use of recycled wastewater, restricting natural grass lawns, and imposing land use and urban design requirements to collect and store stormwater — haven’t reached nearly the same level of clarity and legislative purpose.
There’s a reason for that. Regulatory changes in water policy and practice are some of the steepest cliffs in Arizona’s political landscape. Any proposal judged by lawmakers to challenge property rights, raise costs, and impede growth is dead on arrival in the Legislature. Such proposals generate powerful winds of opposition in the executive offices of home builders, chambers of commerce, and every other economic development agency.
Arizona’s leaders and communities vow to continue growing. One prominent example is Buckeye, a suburb in the desert west of Phoenix that is one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Buckeye supplies over 11,000 acre-feet of water annually to its 97,000 residents and businesses, according to city figures.
Buckeye has enough land — and its current leaders sufficient moxie — to welcome 900,000 more residents by mid-century. At current rates of water consumption, Buckeye would need over 100,000 acre-feet annually, or 90,000 acre-feet more water than today.
Where will it come from? The city’s latest master water plan includes a lengthy list of potential water sources that are either unreliable (Colorado River), difficult to secure and transport, and certainly more expensive.
One idea, for example, is to help finance construction that will raise the height of 83-year-old Bartlett Dam, located east of Phoenix, to add 130,000 acre-feet to Bartlett Lake’s storage capacity. Whatever portion of the added supply that Buckeye gains would then be transported to the city over 100 miles through existing canals.
Another idea is to build a treatment plant to remove salts and impurities from a brackish aquifer within the city limits to use as water for landscaping, and maybe for drinking water.
Two more ideas involve purchasing groundwater from basins distant from Buckeye and transporting it by pipe and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) aqueduct to the city. Sounds simple in concept. In real-life application it’s not. The administrative challenges, water leasing contracts, and infrastructure requirements are costly and tricky.
One of those sources is the Harquahala groundwater basin beneath the desert further west of Buckeye, in Maricopa County. The state says it holds a total of 15.5 million acre-feet, though not nearly all of that can be recovered. If Buckeye relies on the Harquahala basin for most of the 90,000 acre-feet it will need, that represents perhaps a 50-year supply. Existing state law requires subdivision builders in Buckeye to assure they have a 100-year supply of water before they can begin construction. Harquahala, in effect, helps a bit in meeting that requirement. Buckeye needs more than Harquahala for its new sources of water.
Second, transporting groundwater out of the Harquahala basin to Buckeye involves 1) building a 30-mile long pipeline, 2) transporting water via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and 3) paying a fortune for the water.
The first obstacle likely requires a formal environmental assessment, or a more complex environmental impact statement required for state, and perhaps the federal government’s review and approval.
Transporting water in the CAP is similarly complex. It involves review and approval by the director of the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. secretary of the Interior. Following those approvals, Buckeye would need to negotiate and sign a wheeling contract approved by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the leadership board that oversees the CAP.
The third element, actually gaining access to Harquahala groundwater, significantly raises the cost of water in Buckeye. Buyers seeking a long-term lease for Harquahala water told Circle of Blue that the current price quote is a one-time fee of $7,000 to $10,000 an acre foot, or somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion.
When asked whether Buckeye will have sufficient supplies of water to meet the demand of 1 million residents, Annie DeChance, the city’s communications manager, did not hesitate. “Absolutely,” she replied. “We have the water we need. We are aware of the complexities and challenges.”
Rio Verde scarcity
The majestic Four Peaks mountain range was painted in a luminous morning shade of purple the day Karen Nabity and Jennifer Simpson collected petition signatures in support of a plan to secure a permanent source of Rio Verde Foothills water. Nabity and Simpson had waded into the complexity of Arizona law and regulation, and the rugged terrain of politics, to find a solution. They are leading a local campaign to establish a domestic water improvement district, in effect a state-sanctioned community utility would have the authority to negotiate agreements to secure an alternative source of water.
It’s a big idea for a distinctive Arizona community. Beneath Rio Verde Foothills lie groundwater supplies that never were robust. Some of the community’s homes were built without wells and buyers knew they would always rely on trucked water. Most others had private wells that delivered sufficient water.
But as development occurred, competition from new homes put pressure on the aquifer. Private wells failed and more homes turned to water hauling. Then came the megadrought, which eliminated most of the natural aquifer recharge, and dried up hundreds more private wells.
At least a quarter of Rio Verde’s 2,100 homes, Nabity said, are supplied with water by tanker trucks filled at Scottsdale’s water fill station, about 10 miles away. It’s enough water in a water-scarce era for Scottsdale to pay attention — 38 million gallons or 117 acre-feet annually and increasing. City authorities last year told Rio Verde residents their access to the depot would stop at the end of this year.
Water shortage emergencies like the one occurring north of Phoenix were not supposed to happen in Arizona. The 1980 groundwater law, plus provisions put in place in 1995, required home builders to prove that a 100-year supply of water was available before construction could start. But the 1995 rules exempted construction projects with fewer than six homes, and the 1980 law exempted wells that pump less than 35 gallons per minute. Both decisions enabled builders and buyers to avoid regulatory constraints and accelerate development.
Homes and property in the community are now valued at $1.3 billion, according to Maricopa County records. Rio Verde residents are encountering a new truth about vulnerability that less fortunate people already knew: wealth and stature are no match for water scarcity.
Nabity and Simpson, real estate professionals, propose a difficult legal and logistical solution that also has encountered some local opposition. The proposed community water district, a unit of government enabled by state law, gives homeowners the legal authority to collaborate and secure a new source of water.
The steps to formally establish the district and then acquire the new source are intricate and formidable without a deadline. Nabity and Simpson formed a non-profit, RVF Water Resources, Inc., to raise money and collect signatures on the petition to meet the legal requirements for establishing the water district. If the district is approved members will pay $1,000 per home to become district members and get the project started.
In its most basic outline, the community needs Maricopa County to approve the water district’s formation. It hasn’t yet due to opposition from some Rio Verde homeowners. Following that step, the district’s leaders, among them Nabity and Simpson, need to find a source of water. They are talking with water developers in the Harquahala groundwater basin to buy land with water rights to 200 acre-feet annually. That would mean piping it under Interstate 10 and into the CAP for transport. Both steps require intensive federal review. The total cost of the water lease, legal counsel, engineering, construction, and transportation could well exceed $4 million, plus the monthly cost of administration and hauling water to their homes. The Rio Verde Foothills homeowners also need to build a new community water depot where trucks can fill their tanks. The earliest all of this could occur, Nabity says, is 2026.
So she and Simpson opened a second path to end the water emergency – negotiating one-year water leases for 170 acre-feet from the Gila River Indian Community or another tribe that already is delivering water to Phoenix-area communities through the CAP. The one-year lease of tribal water, plus transportation and treatment to drinking water standards will be roughly $250,000.
It’s a full-time job without pay. “Did we ever think we’d be leading this charge?” remarked Nabity. “Never. Not even close.”
One more significant impediment. In order to meet Scottsdale’s December 31 deadline, the Rio Verde Foothills residents have until June 30 to negotiate and sign separate contracts for water supply with a tribe, and with Scottsdale to receive and treat the new supply. If those steps are completed the city told Nabity it will suspend the December 31 shutoff deadline and allow tanker trucks to use the fill station.
“It’s such a critical time crunch. I can’t even tell you,” Nabity said.
What’s happening in the Rio Verde Foothills — the causes of the emergency, the arduous path to solutions — is a small act in the mammoth, momentous, water shortage epic unfolding in Arizona. The state’s powerful resolve to keep growing is confronting much more potent limits on its water supply, the essential resource for attracting and supporting a civilization that is now at the peak of its human appeal and economic influence.
Extreme heat and deeper drought are forcing a reckoning. Over the next generation governments, farms, residents, and businesses will have to adjust to the new conditions. The challenge is immense. The bar for measuring success is high and terrifically difficult, especially viewed in this era of disruption, diversion, and dissent.
What will Arizona be like in 2060?
A reasonable projection is a state of active farm regions — Yuma, Pinal County, and Native American reservations — that cultivate half the number of irrigated acres that they do now.
The Tucson and Phoenix metro areas are smaller in order to better balance demand and available water supply. Homeowners and small businesses pay more for water than they do for electricity, a factor in diminishing the region’s economic competitiveness and residential allure.
Native American tribes that hold 2 million acre-feet of secure water rights will have built impressive desert economies and elevated to the top tier of policy influence and economic wealth.
Beaten by heat and drought, Arizona’s rural regions are a scorched landscape of expanding desert and empty towns where farmers and residents once lived in more hospitable conditions.
This project was made possible by a fellowship awarded by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for The American West.
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue – March 21, 2022
The Biggest Dry: Arizona, second of three reports. Read the rest of the series here.
WILLCOX, Ariz. – Nobody who knows Peggy Judd would mistake her for a political progressive.
At age 59, Judd is in her second term as one of three supervisors in Cochise County, a nearly 4 million-acre expanse of mesquite and cholla cactus, irrigated cropland, and pecan orchards silhouetted by towering mountains in southeast Arizona. Raised on a Cochise County farm and true to her allegiance to private property rights, Judd has no interest in hampering the development of this high desert county’s farms and ranches, which are an economic growth sector accounting for over $100 million in annual sales.
One more detail about Judd. Like many other Arizona Republicans, she is preoccupied by former President Donald Trump’s big lie that he won the 2020 election. County voters called for Judd’s resignation last year after she bragged on her Facebook page about marching on the Capitol during the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally.
Yet when it comes to water in a county where groundwater is the sole source for irrigation and drinking, and where demand is racing ahead of supply, the boundaries of politics and ideology can change. Clear proof has emerged in recent years of the serious consequences of dropping groundwater levels in water-scarce Cochise County. A surge of aggressive groundwater pumping by new homes in the county’s southern region, along with recently arrived and thirsty livestock, pecan, and pistachio farms, has impaired the protected San Pedro River and caused irrigation and homeowner wells to go dry.
In order to develop acceptable responses, Judd finds herself surveying the region’s rugged political terrain of private interest, anti-government, free market zeal. Confrontations over water don’t always fit neatly into these spaces. Her assessment, swayed by conversations with constituents, is a more nuanced view of science, the public interest, and government’s role in brokering solutions.
She’s been active in organizing support for a new water district to supply piped water to over 1,000 homeowners south of Willcox, where water levels are falling and more than 100 drinking water wells are useless.
Reversing an earlier stance, she has also expressed interest in exerting some measure of local authority to oversee water use. “Six years ago I was kind of against it,” Judd said in an interview. “I have friends who farm, though. They convinced me that I needed to keep my mind open.”
Last year Judd joined her Democratic colleague on the Cochise board in aligning the county with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense – which manages an Army garrison at Fort Huachuca – to secure water supplies and improve the condition of the depleted San Pedro River near the border with Mexico.
In approving the formal memorandum of understanding, Judd defied the other Republican supervisor, the county’s Republican leadership, and many of her friends who are suspicious of big government. “I’ve really been rubbed and rolled over the coals for voting to do things that are beneficial to the environment or beneficial to the people,” Judd said. “I’m told it’s not the government’s business. We shouldn’t be doing it. We shouldn’t be at the table on these things. I say we should.”
That the needle on Cochise County’s water supply meter is drifting away from full — actually slipping steadily closer to empty — is not in doubt. A 2018 study by the Arizona Department of Water Resources found that groundwater levels dropped 300 feet since 1950 in one basin. In other places it is declining 10 feet annually. According to the state, irrigation wells that cost millions of dollars are starting to be drilled to a depth of 2,500 feet.
Exactly what to do, whatever path is taken, is a journey across a desert of policy and practice that is getting steadily harsher as options become more expensive and political divisions widen. “Nothing happens without consensus, you know,” Judd said. “That’s what I’m trying to build on these water issues.”
Though they make life in the Arizona desert more comfortable, air conditioning, private vehicles, and concrete highways are not the primary equipment that enabled one of history’s greatest desert civilizations. That distinction goes to the dams, reservoirs, and powerful pumps that secured access to the state’s surface and groundwater supplies. And to the aqueducts and irrigation canals that transported water to where it was needed.
Arizona’s impressive water infrastructure, most importantly, is the result of the disputes resolved and the consensus built on public policy, public investment, and oversight that unfolded in three overlapping policy-making eras in the 20th century.
A fourth era dominated by extreme heat and drought is underway to save what’s been built.
The short course goes like this. The first era, opening at the start of the 20th century and continuing until World War Two, secured surface water, which provides nearly 60 percent of Arizona’s water supply. Roosevelt Dam (1911), Coolidge Dam (1930), Bartlett Dam (1939), and four others were completed to store the waters of three rivers to serve Phoenix and surrounding farms. Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 to store the waters of the Colorado River in Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir. And in 1944 Arizona signed the seven state compact, initially negotiated 22 years before, to share the waters of the Colorado River and gain 2.8 million acre-feet annually of its flow.
The second era — call it the groundwater alert years — started in 1938 when Arizona appointed its first commission to study the increasing reliance on water stored in the state’s aquifers, a 1.2 billion acre-feet reserve, comparable to what Lake Ontario holds. Groundwater supplies 40 percent of Arizona’s water. But many desert aquifers are essentially a finite water source, and differ in depth and distribution. A great deal of Arizona’s groundwater is unusable because it contains high concentrations of salts and other impurities. And when it is pumped the land above often sinks, causing big cracks and deep trenches on the surface.
In 1945, two years after the Legislature funded a U.S. Geological Survey investigation of serious depletion, Arizona approved the first Groundwater Code that required irrigation wells to be registered. Three years later Arizona prohibited drilling new irrigation wells in ten designated Critical Groundwater Areas.
The third water supply era merged the surface water supply goals of the first era with the groundwater protection goals of the second. It opened in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Colorado River Basin Project Act authorizing construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. The 336-mile aqueduct would eventually transport 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Phoenix, Tucson, and Pinal County, the agricultural region that lies between them. Its primary purpose: supply the Phoenix-Tucson corridor and replace the groundwater being drained there with Colorado River water.
In 1979, six years into its construction, the aqueduct project came under scrutiny by the Carter administration, and not only because of its multi-billion dollar cost. Unconvinced that the project would actually lead to less groundwater pumping, the Interior Department threatened to shut down construction of the aqueduct unless Arizona adopted a more stringent groundwater code. The warning galvanized then Gov. Bruce Babbitt and the Arizona Legislature to enact the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, a regulatory regime to reduce groundwater pumping. It also established a new state agency, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, to administer the law.
Essentially, the statute had three primary objectives. First, it halted expansion of irrigated farmland in Pinal County and regulated groundwater use in three other designated “active management areas” (AMAs) – Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott. A fifth AMA in Santa Cruz, south of Tucson, was established in 1994.
Second, it set a 2025 goal for the Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott AMAs to put as much water back into aquifers through artificial and natural recharge as was being withdrawn, a groundwater supply balance that lawmakers called “safe yield.”
Third, it required developers to prove they had a 100-year assured supply of water before they could sell subdivision lots. The law set a 1995 deadline for the Arizona Department of Water Resources to promulgate rules to meet the requirement.
As that deadline approached and demand for new housing mounted, the Legislature jumped in to help a powerful constituency. Subdivision builders in undeveloped parts of the Phoenix and Tucson AMAs had no access to water from the Central Arizona Project and were having trouble meeting the 100-year assured water supply requirement. They pressed the Legislature to make it easier to get the water they needed.
In 1993, the Legislature responded by establishing the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, a project administered by the operators of the Central Arizona Project that is required to replenish water in regional aquifers comparable to the amount of groundwater being pumped out for new developments. In most cases the replenishment source is the Colorado River.
With surface and groundwater supplies more secure than ever before, Arizona raced to the head of the national pack in economic growth, housing starts, and new jobs. In 2000, Arizona counted 4.8 million residents, 70 percent more than in 1980. The state has added 2.3 million more residents in the two decades since.
Phoenix and Tucson became magnets for sun seekers. Yuma, along the banks of the Colorado River in southwest Arizona, developed into the country’s winter leafy green capital. Sedona, near the Grand Canyon, surfaced as a nationally known retreat for spiritual healing and red rock adventure. Groundwater levels, particularly in Pinal County, actually started rising.
Earth pushes back
That momentum carried into the first decades of the 21st century even as a new era of water supply and demand opened. Call it the years of survival, when Earth’s power to heat and dry the state began to overwhelm the achievements of the first three eras, draining surface water supplies, increasing reliance on finite groundwater reserves, and causing water supply stress in almost every region.
No consensus has yet developed for its opening date, though several are candidates.
It could be 2000, the year the Southwest’s megadrought started and Lake Mead began its bathtub ring decline. It could be 2007, the year the Interior Department set guidelines on cutting Colorado River water supplies to Arizona if Lake Mead water levels continued to drop.
Or it could be August 16, 2021, the day the U.S. Department of the Interior issued the first-ever water shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Arizona’s 2022 supply of Colorado River water was cut 512,000 acre-feet — a third of the water typically transported in the CAP canal — causing farmers in Pinal County to fallow 30 to 40 percent of their land and sustain $100 million in lost income.
To calm public anxiety, governments and water authorities stressed that the shortage declaration came as “no surprise.” It nevertheless produced an ominous mark on the graph of Arizona’s water supply and use. This was the year that the lines for rising municipal and industrial demand for water and falling supplies crossed, confirming the extent of water stress across Arizona.
In northern Arizona’s Mohave County, two studies found that at current rates of use the region’s aquifer would be empty before the end of the century. According to water hauling companies, groundwater pumping dropped aquifers so low in the Chino Valley (near Prescott) that thousands of residential wells have gone dry.
Flagstaff, close to the Grand Canyon, has proposed building a 40-mile-long, $200 million-plus pipeline to tap a distant aquifer beneath a ranch. Authorities in Scottsdale, reacting to the federal water shortage declaration and requirements of its own drought contingency plan, set a December 31, 2022, deadline for shutting off access to a city-owned depot used by tanker trucks that deliver drinking water to over 500 homeowners in the Rio Verde Foothills north of the city.
Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott are withdrawing more groundwater than they are replacing and will not meet the 2025 “safe yield” goal, according to a 2021 study by the Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.
“We’ve reached that point. You can’t have it all,” said Kathleen Ferris, a senior research fellow at the Kyl Center who helped write the 1980 groundwater law and co-authored the 2021 study. “You can’t grow and grow and grow on these far-flung lands on groundwater, have agriculture just continue to be such a dominant water user, and put industries anywhere you want. You have to be smarter. We have to change how we grow.”
There is not yet consensus on that assertion in official Arizona. State water authorities point to data that shows Arizona’s water use is 7 million acre-feet annually, which is 30 percent or 3 million acre-feet less than in 1980 when the state had 4.5 million fewer people. A sizable share of that reduction, though, is the 200,000 fewer acres that Arizona farmers are no longer irrigating.
What is clear is that 2022 is the year that the limitations of Arizona’s 20th century engineering and policy innovations are readily apparent. Groundwater withdrawals in and outside the AMAs are increasing. Water supplies from the Central Arizona Project, a paragon of design and industrial competence built to reliably substitute surface water for groundwater and solve water scarcity in one of the nation’s fastest growing states, became unreliable.
“Arizona has come to this moment to more deeply acknowledge that groundwater is finite. But that is happening without the comfort of a new supply,” said Amy McCoy, a research scientist and water supply consultant who’s worked in Arizona and Colorado. “On the contrary, it’s happening with dramatic decline in Colorado River supplies, and in snowpack, and in water recharge in general.
“That is where the state is at right now,” McCoy said. “We have one cup of tea. What are we going to do with it?”
That is an acute public interest challenge, just the kind that in previous eras was answered by federal, state, and local leadership sufficiently skilled in sorting out the details, negotiating differences, and reaching consensus on responses. That capacity is weaker now as fixes become more complex.
The lift is especially heavy due to the limitations of the state Legislature — one of the forums that Arizona has traditionally turned to for help — which is controlled by Republicans.
Last year, the state Republican Party and many of its elected lawmakers were primarily intent on conducting an audit and overturning the results of the 2020 election, the first loss in Arizona by a Republican presidential nominee since 1996. This year the party’s legislative focus is to game the system. In January, Republicans introduced 100 bills devoted to making voting harder. They include measures to stop early voting, end mail-in ballots, and enact other restrictions to curb participation.
Even without significant legislative attention, a number of water-related ideas currently command an audience. A proposal to reduce groundwater demand that is supported by city and county authorities is nonetheless experiencing turbulence in the Legislature. In Mohave County, which depends on aquifers for all of its water, and where bigpecan farms are blamed for dropping groundwater levels 200 feet over the last decade, officials support changing state law to allow local oversight of groundwater withdrawals.
State Rep. Regina Cobb, Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a resident of Kingman, the county seat, has introduced legislation every year since 2017 to accomplish that objective. She’s been rebuffed four years in a row. This year, her last in the House, she’s asked Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers for help. The prospects for passage are uncertain.
“I’ve been told water is a private property right and leave it alone,” Cobb said. “My thought is it’s a private property right until it affects everyone in the county, and everyone in the state. Then it’s no longer private. It’s a resource all of us need.”
Another group of responses to water scarcity in Arizona is aspirational. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, reflecting the popular views of industry, real estate, and the farm community, wants to develop new water supplies. Ducey budgeted $160 million last year to study the potential for what he and others call “augmentation.” That term reflects a number of approaches like building desalination plants, designing homes, streets, and parks to capture and store stormwater, and increase supplies from recycled wastewater.
The latter already accounts for over 500,000 acre-feet of water available for landscaping, irrigating golf courses, and cooling Palo Verde, the state’s lone nuclear generating station. Ducey wants more. It could come from California.
Arizona and CAP are investing $6 million in a $30 million, three-year feasibility study by the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles that could lead to construction of a $3.4 billion wastewater recycling plant capable of producing 168,000 acre-feet annually. Instead of being flushed into the Pacific, the water would be available for the dryland metropolises. The new supply would offset some of the 4.4 million acre-feet that California is entitled to withdraw annually from the Colorado River.
The new recycled supply also could provide more water for Arizona and other Colorado basin states, or it could be used to keep water levels in Lake Mead high enough to prevent more emergency shortage declarations that come with even larger cuts in the state’s surface water supply.
This year Ducey proposed establishing a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, to find new sources of water and called on the Legislature to approve $1 billion for it to spend. Ducey is particularly intent on building a desalination plant capable of delivering 250,000 acre-feet of water annually. The proposed location is the Gulf of California in Mexico. A plant of comparable size in Saudi Arabia took three years to build and opened in 2014 at a cost of $7 billion.
Given the 10-year to 20-year timeline to plan, design, finance, and build major infrastructure projects, including the necessary pumping stations and pipelines for a Mexico-based plant, the price would be much greater. The cost of an acre-foot of water would be thousands of dollars.
Nor is it clear where the new supply will go. Given the location, the new supply could go to Mexico to offset the 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water that Mexico has been entitled to since 1944. In that case it would be a cross-boundary trade.Mexico’s allotment of Colorado River water would drop by the same amount that Arizona supply increases.
Whatever occurs, if the plant is built, Arizonans will almost certainly spend considerably more for water than they do today.
An even more frantic and fanciful idea, offered by Tim Dunn, a Republican House member from Yuma, is making its way around the state Capitol: somehow capturing water from the Mississippi River for use in Arizona. Such a project would rival China’s South-North Water Transfer Project — the construction of three immense water pipelines for siphoning water from the Yangtze River and transporting it 890 miles north to Beijing.
The federal government contemplated a similar and ultimately unsuccessful diversion from out-of-state basins in the 1960s when it proposed diverting water from rivers in the Pacific Northwest to supply the Colorado River.
And in 1968, following a deep drought and two comprehensive federal and state studies that projected severe deficits in water supply, Texas water authorities proposed withdrawing 12 million acre-feet of water each year from the Mississippi River near New Orleans. The proposal called for the new supply to be transported through a modern day Roman Empire-scale network that crossed Louisiana, spanned much of Texas, and encompassed 1,000 miles of concrete-lined canals, 67 new reservoirs, and electricity-generating stations to power hundreds of pumps. Voters rejected the idea principally due to the cost — $74 billion in current dollars.
A third group of proposed water supply solutions in Arizona is changing how existing supplies are allocated and transported around the state, which essentially means reducing agriculture’s share of available water. “The economic reality is that irrigated agriculture uses 70 percent of Arizona’s total water use for 2 percent of the state’s total G.D.P.,” said Bruce Babbitt, the former governor. “What we ought to be doing is setting up a regulatory system which provides incentives to move a small proportion of that irrigated agricultural use into urban industrial use. If you reduce the agriculture footprint in the state by 10 percent, that would free up nearly a million acre-feet of water, which would easily be enough for the entire foreseeable future for urban industrial use.”
Babbitt’s idea is gaining traction. The Colorado River Indian Tribes, who farm 80,000 irrigated acres, have rights to more than 600,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. The tribe is seeking federal legislation to allow it to market some of its allocation to users outside of reservation lands, located on the banks of the river.
South of Phoenix, the Gila River Indian Community farms 35,000 acres and is already marketing some of its water entitlement, which is more than 650,000 acre-feet annually. Since 2016, the tribe has kept 370,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead to help slow the reservoir’s decline. And though the August 2021 shortage declaration cut its Colorado River water supply by 41,000 acre-feet, the tribe agreed to leave almost 130,000 more acre-feet in Lake Mead this year, receiving nearly $36 million dollars from the state and federal government.
Arizona’s groundwater law allows for water from several aquifers in rural farming counties west of Phoenix to be tapped and moved into the metropolitan area. But moving water from a rural region to the Phoenix metro area also has ignited fierce opposition. Queen Creek, a fast-growing Phoenix suburb, purchased a small farm in Cibola, along the Colorado River, to gain access to 2,000 acre-feet of water annually to serve residents and businesses. The transfer, supported by the state Department of Water Resources, was protested by citizens and elected leaders from Colorado River counties, among them Rep. Cobb, who has introduced the groundwater oversight bills.
The regulatory process also is an impediment. Most basin-to-basin water transfers would require transport in the Central Arizona Project canal, requiring approval by the Department of the Interior. The department is reviewing the Queen Creek transfer.
A reckoning in Cochise County
On a temperate January day, as the sun began to set on the dark peaks west of Willcox, Peggy Judd explained the intricacies and difficulties of securing Cochise County’s groundwater supplies.
The dropping water table, which appears to be principally due to aggressive pumping for irrigation, is causing subsidence and opening deep fissures in the earth, some of which are damaging highways. But in a county that has been losing population for most of the century, and where old downtowns are a collection of empty and ragged structures, agriculture is attracting new jobs and tens of millions of dollars in investment.
“It’s hard. We all just need to stop arguing,” Judd said. Then she grabbed her phone and started dialing. “I need you talk to this guy,” she said. “Get his thoughts.”
“This guy” is Calvin Allred who, at age 75, has spent most of his adult life as a lawyer in Willcox, where he moved in 1978 and represented many of the county’s farmers and ranchers. Raised on a farm, Allred returned to active agriculture production in 2003 when he started growing 800 acres of pecans. Two instincts guided his farming principles. First, Allred recognized that pecans were poised for growth in Arizona’s productive farm sector. Cochise County, with 1,100 farms and nearly a million acres of farmland, was a sensible place to settle.
His second instinct was the certainty that in the hard work of drilling wells, planting trees, and raising food, regulation was not needed since Cochise County seemed to have water and land in abundance. “The agricultural footprint then was sustainable,” he said.
Though Allred did not know it at the time, starting his farm in Cochise at the dawn of this century coincided with a boom in the county’s farm sector. Cochise is now one of the largest producers of pecans and pistachios in Arizona, which is a $52 million crop for the state. The same virtues that lured Allred — land and groundwater — also attracted other big water-thirsty farms, including a Minnesota-based dairy company that built one of the largest agriculture operations in the Southwest. Riverview LLP’s two dairies in Cochise manage a herd of 120,000 animals, and grow feed on 39,000 irrigated acres. The dairies and the irrigated fields, according to a company spokesman, draw 110,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Willcox aquifer, which is close to what Tucson’s residents use.
Not surprisingly, drinking water wells have gone dry for homes closest to the dairy. Vance Williams, a disabled Air Force veteran who lives on $1,200 a month, owns one of the wells. It dried up a year ago, forcing him to spend $1,600 he could ill afford on a 2,500-gallon water tank and pump. He pays $100 a month for 1,500 gallons hauled to his tank by truck. His life, never easy, has become much more turbulent.
“We’re really careful about what we use,” he explained while standing in front of the home where he lives with his girlfriend. “A few gallons for cooking. Quick shower every three days. I really can’t afford $100 for water. It’s a saga, man. It’s kind of horrific.”
Hundreds more Cochise County homeowners are contending with dropping water levels in their wells, which could result in huge costs — $50,000 or more — to deepen them or drill new ones. Steve Kiesel and Mark Spencer are neighbors who own handsome desert homes southwest of Willcox. Their homes are close enough to share a well that has a finite life.
Water levels are dropping 5 feet a year. “I would say right now it’s not an immediate emergency,” Kiesel said. “I also would say with where we are right now with water levels, we have 20 years tops before it goes dry. Do we pay for a new one at that point? Don’t know.”
That’s not the only threat from dropping aquifers. Three times in the last five years land subsidence split apart two highways and rangeland just up the road. “It’s not just the water,” Spencer said. “Earth fissures are showing up all over the county. You’re thinking, ‘What do we do if one shows up in our driveway?’ The thought of moving is always around. But who’s going to buy?”
More than 50 miles north, Calvin Allred confronts similar risks. He says his wells also are dropping over 5 feet a year. Keeping the farm operating likely means reworking existing wells to reach water 1,000 feet below the surface, or drilling new irrigation wells that could cost $500,000 each.
He’s come to accept that the solution is some sort of local oversight program that prevents excessive pumping from Cochise aquifers. In other words, a rebalancing of priorities to give more weight to the public interest.
Williams, Kiesel, and Spencer are actively participating in a new local campaign, similar to the one being organized in Mohave County, to establish a rural water management area in Cochise County. Allred won’t get involved. In 2015 he participated in a local effort to bar new irrigation wells in the county and prevent any expansion of irrigated farmland. That plan would have required state approval. The Cochise campaign got rough and divided the farm community.
As a grower, Allred has real-world knowledge of water and economics. As a lawyer, he knows the outlines of water law. And as a longtime Cochise County resident, he’s intimately aware of differing opinions, clashing private and public interests, and the unforgiving politics that determine water supply, demand, and use.
How does Allred assess which way the balance should tilt? He put it this way: “My neighbor says he has the right to pump as much water as he wants to raise his crop. But what about my right to have enough water to raise mine?”
This project was made possible by a fellowship awarded by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for The American West.
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – Tales of personal anguish are the typical start of serious articles about Arizona’s conspicuous confrontation with scarce water. The distraught Chino Valley homeowner buying water out of a truck because her well dried up. The Pinal farmer losing income because his water-starved fields lie fallow. The Phoenix golf course operator, burdened by high irrigation costs and declining revenue, selling out to a home developer.
This report, the first of three on how Arizona copes with a drought more serious than any in 1,200 years doesn’t start there. Instead it begins with this: A brief on how adept engineering for dams and aqueducts, government subsidy, technological development for pumps and water recycling, surpassing marketing, and an advantageous assemblage of natural resources – sun, warmth, blue sky, and open spaces – produced one of the greatest desert civilizations in human history.
Arizona’s population, 7.1 million, has increased by an average of 1 million people a decade since the 1950s, when the five C’s ruled the state: cattle, copper, cotton, citrus, and climate. Even as the first four have declined in relative importance, the appeal of warmth and sunshine has not diminished. In fact, it’s boom times. Phoenix, with 1.7 million residents, is now the nation’s fifth largest city. To spend time in Arizona is to understand why it’s been one of the fastest growing states for four generations. The state embodies a century of pure American capitalist exuberance.
Arizona’s annual gross domestic product, nearing $380 billion, has more than doubled since 2000. New solar installations, electric vehicle makers, computer chip manufacturers, data centers, and corporate farming companies are piling into the state.
Arizona added nearly 200,000 new jobs last year and issued construction permits for 65,000 new homes, according to state and federal figures.
State government has amassed a budget surplus every year since 2016. The general fund last year, in an unmistakable rebuke to the pandemic, collected $2 billion more in tax revenues than it did in 2020. State economists forecast a $4 billion budget surplus over the next three years.
The economic boom transformed the landscape. Arizona built an impressive array of beautiful homes, attractive neighborhoods, wide highways, thriving businesses, fine universities, high-tech manufacturers, and state-of-the-art irrigated farms. All of it — 114,000 square miles, 73 million acres — is saluted by cactus forests, towering mountains, mesquite desert, and transcendent vistas that touch the horizon.
Arizona, in other words, reveled in its location in a mighty desert, commanded the contemporary 20th century rules of the development game, and reached the pinnacle of its lifestyle appeal and economic influence in the first decades of the 21st.
The question now, as it has been since 1911 when the first big reservoir was completed to supply Phoenix with water, is one of longevity. Can this desert bounty be sustained for another 100 years, or even another 50? That question is more urgent and more relevant than ever. Climate change is disrupting the rules of the development game. Drought and extreme heat are emptying rivers and reservoirs, fallowing tens of thousands of acres of farmland, forcing thousands of homeowners to secure water from trucks and not their dead wells, and pushing Arizona ever closer to the precipice of peril.
The most revealing and menacing evidence of that fact has emerged on the Colorado River, which supplies 36 percent of the state’s water. The river’s flow is 20 percent lower than it was in the 1990s. The country’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead, which opened in 1934, and Lake Powell, in 1963 — are on the river and were designed to hold 55 million acre-feet of water. (One acre-foot equals 325,852 gallons.) At 30 percent of capacity combined, they now hold less water than at any time since soon after they were opened. In total, 36 million acre-feet, or nearly 12 trillion gallons, of storage space is empty.
Last August, as extreme heat and drought dropped the lake levels further, the federal government issued a formal declaration of water shortage. Translated into the legal details of the pact involving two countries, seven states, and 30 tribes that guides the river’s management, the declaration meant that Arizona’s share of the river will be cut by 512,000 acre-feet this year, or 166 billion gallons.
River Water Lost
It’s a lot of water on paper, amounting to 8 percent of the 7 million acre-feet of water that Arizona uses annually. And it’s almost 20 percent of the 2.8 million acre-feet that Arizona is legally entitled to receive each year from the Colorado River.
Arizona was already using less Colorado River water in the years before the declaration, and there is wiggle room in the math for how much the state will actually go without. Nevertheless, the federal declaration was a body blow. It formalized what the state has managed to avoid for a century. Arizona’s demand for water in metropolitan regions and industry has crossed the line delineating diminishing water supply. The consequence is a slow motion collision that puts Arizona’s desert economy and way of life, along with its governing capacity to adjust and evolve, in the direct path of nature’s power to drive out and dry up much of what was built.
State lawmakers and business executives have anticipated the confrontation for nearly a decade and insist that there is no immediate crisis. More than 13 million acre-feet of water — a nearly two-year supply — has been purposefully stored in underground reserves specifically for use in emergencies. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has convened expert committees. He’s also urging the Legislature to establish a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, and commit over $1 billion to a new strategy for securing additional sources of water, like building desalination plants and harvesting flood waters from the Mississippi River. Arizona and the six other Colorado River Basin states have a 2026 deadline to reach a new agreement on sharing the river’s water.
Invoking words of assurance principally designed to quell anxiety in the markets for housing and new business starts, state leaders display determined allegiance to the message that Arizona has sufficient supply and know-how to continue to thrive. As Gov. Ducey likes to say: “Arizona is open for business.”
That’s true, for the time being, for the more than 5 million people in Phoenix and its suburbs, and the 1 million residents of metropolitan Tucson. Both cities have developed secure sources of water, and applied effective techniques of water conservation, recycling, and reuse.
But both cities also are served by the Colorado River. Phoenix receives 40 percent, and Tucson 60 percent of their water from the river. Climatologists project the worst is yet to come and the river could lose 3 million more acre-feet from its flow by mid-century, or another 20 to 30 percent. If that occurs, water supplies for Phoenix and Tucson would be substantially cut. Residents and businesses will contend with dramatic shifts in lifestyle and water consumption. Green grass, swimming pools, golf course water hazards, even golf courses would be amenities of the past. The price of water could rise well above the cost of electricity and thereby influence all sorts of economic outcomes like changes in housing values, residential construction, and business starts.
Drier Conditions Projected
If those meteorological projections are accurate, and if decades can be described as a race for time, Arizona has about a generation to figure out, finance, and execute a new resilience strategy. The state appears to have two paths, and just two, to pursue. One that rallies federal, state, tribal, and local governments to unify opposing forces and bring water supply and demand into balance in the era of accelerating climate change. The second path is more perilous, strewn with impediments of politics, civic disagreement, financing, litigation, and inaction that yields a catastrophe where everything goes wrong.
“Most of the press, it’s the second one not the first one,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “There’s hard policy choices to be made. For instance, how much farming do we need? Where will you get your farm products? Are we going to rely on another country for our food? There’s that kind of debate that’s going on.
“Part of our mission statement actually has the words ‘lifestyle.’ So what lifestyle do you want? Do you want not one green thing in the city? City environments to the point where use is 18 gallons per capita? We need a different, more holistic look at how everything fits together. It’s conservation. It’s about augmentation. It’s about a whole bunch of things.”
“We’ve got 20 or 30 years,” added Grady Gammage Jr., an attorney who’s written extensively about water and is distinguished fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “We’re still so addicted to growth as the solution to everything. But where’s the water going to come from? I used to tell people, ‘Relax. We don’t need to worry about that for a long time.’ Not anymore. Now is the time that we need to worry about that.”
Outside Metro Areas The New Sound of Alarm
That message is starting to penetrate more deeply. There’s a reason. A dress rehearsal for contending with serious water shortage is in process for 1 million residents who don’t live in Arizona’s two big metro regions. During a month of frontline reporting in Arizona, Circle of Blue encountered unmistakable signals of extreme water stress:
Wells have run dry for thousands of residents who rely on groundwater for drinking, from Cochise County in the southeast, to Maricopa County north of Phoenix, to the Chino Valley north of Prescott.
Industrial livestock and nut farms have settled in Cochise County, and in Mohave County in the north. Because demand has increased, and moisture to recharge groundwater reserves has diminished, aquifers are dropping 5 feet a year. Irrigation wells on existing farms already have gone dry and more are in jeopardy of going dry.
Water scarcity is driving two of Arizona’s fastest growing business sectors. Water hauling companies are adding trucks and drivers to keep pace with demand. And water well drilling companies, prompted by customer lists so long that orders are filled six or more months after they are made, are buying new equipment and hiring more staff.
The San Carlos Reservoir, formed by 92-year-old Coolidge Dam, is designed to store 1 million acre-feet of water from the Gila River to irrigate 100,000 acres of farmland between Phoenix and Tucson. Rain and snow melt in the high desert where the reservoir is located have been so altered by climate change that it’s filled only once since 1980 and now holds a mere 37,000 acre-feet.
Though 40 of its 140 miles are protected in a national conservation area famed for wildlife and migrating birds, the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona is hardly a river at all. The aquifers that sustained its flow have been drawn down by extreme heat, drought, and hundreds of wells drilled for housing. Once promoted as one of the state’s last “free flowing” rivers, the San Pedro is now but a trickle, and altogether dry along much of its path.
The dollar value of water is climbing to heights never before seen in the state or hardly anticipated. Arizona last year approved the sale of 2,083 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to Queen Creek, a Phoenix suburb. The cost of the deal: $21 million or $10,000 per acre-foot. Queen Creek is anxious to pay. It needs the water. The city’s population — 60,000 — is 15 times higher than in 2000. Its water demand is 10 times higher.
The tightening supply of water, in effect, is testing Arizona’s growth-focused operating system, and producing losers and winners. That is especially true in Pinal County, a Connecticut-size expanse of mountains, desert, farmland, copper mines, Native American reservations, and growing cities set between Phoenix and Tucson. One other feature distinguishes Pinal: about 100 miles of the 336-mile-long Central Arizona Project, one of the country’s longest aqueducts that transports Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to south of Tucson. At its peak in the early 1990s the project delivered 550,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to irrigate a $2.3 billion dairy-alfalfa-cotton-melon farm sector, one of the most prosperous in the country.
Because of agreements that Arizona reached from 2004 to 2019 as the river waned, the federal shortage declaration last August cut the water supply to Pinal County’s four irrigation districts from more than 200,000 acre-feet in the 2000s to 31,000 acre-feet in 2022. The state has promised $40 million to drill or rehabilitate groundwater wells to make up a portion of the loss.
On a crisp January morning, Atanacio “Nacho” Gonzalez returned from a distant field to his Pinal County farm headquarters, within sight of the treeless Table Top mountains, and described what drought and water shortage are doing to 1,500 acres of Bermuda grass and alfalfa that he raises for horses and livestock.
“I’ll give you an idea of where we are,” said Gonzalez, who is 62 years old and has farmed this piece of ground since 2002. “Before the cuts I order 18 CFS for 1,000 acres.” (That’s 18 cubic feet per second or 36 acre-feet per day.) “I apply that nonstop for about two weeks at a time, then alfalfa grows or grass grows. We do that, usually, nine times out of a year.
“What am I going to get this year?” he continues. “Very little, according to what my water companies tell me.”
A University of Arizona analysis published last year projected that because of the federal water declaration Pinal farm income would drop $100 million annually. It’s not a killing blow. It is, however, the latest of the economic hits steadily driving the Pinal farm community to threatened status. Between 2012 and 2017, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census, almost 180 Pinal farms went out of business, a nearly 20 percent reduction. Some 100,000 fewer acres were farmed, an 8 percent decline.
Gonzalez is one of 176 farmers who receive water from the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District, all of whom are contending with a double dose of water shortage. First is the loss of all Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project. Second is what’s happening with the San Carlos Reservoir, which is 97 percent empty. Turning on wells to supply groundwater will not make up the difference.
“Our wells don’t put out so much water,” Gonzalez said. “I’m thinking that I’ll grow on 600 acres, not 1,000. How many cuttings can we do on 600? I’m hoping to do seven to nine. But that’s yet to be seen. We’ll have a 40 percent reduction in the crop.”
Tribal Water Abundance
The federal shortage declaration also produced winners, especially the Gila River Indian Community. Most of the tribe’s 372,000-acre reservation is spread across the northern section of Pinal County. In 2004 Congress approved a huge water settlement that confirmed the tribe’s right to more than 650,000 acre-feet of water, about half from the Colorado River. The long-term goal of the tribe, whose ancestors date back to the people who inhabited the region 8,000 years ago, is to restore its ancestral farming ground to about 75,000 acres. It currently farms about 35,000 acres. A $92 million appropriation from the Interior Department is funding the expansion of the tribe’s irrigation network.
In the meantime, the nearly 23,000-member tribe is marketing some of the 311,800 acre-feet of Colorado River water it is entitled to each year. It agreed to lease 33,000 acre-feet annually for 25 years, starting this year, to operators of the Central Arizona Project to support residential development. As a requirement of the 2004 settlement, it leases 41,000 more acre-feet annually to supply drinking water to cities in the Phoenix region.
Since 2016, it’s also kept 370,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead to help slow the reservoir’s decline. And though the August shortage declaration cut its Colorado River water supply by 41,000 acre feet, the tribe agreed to leave nearly 130,000 more acre-feet in Lake Mead this year. That amount is most of Arizona’s share of 500,000 acre-feet that the state, California, and Nevada agreed to keep in the lake last December. The price for that water: $274 an acre-foot, or $35.6 million. In effect, water has become an annual revenue item nearly as significant as the tribe’s three casinos.
Tribal officials did not make themselves available for an interview. But Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, the tribal leader, said in a 2019 news release that the tribe’s goal in leasing water was to “protect Lake Mead,” and “ensure that water supplies are available for an important sector of Arizona’s economy.”
By economy, Lewis principally meant real estate construction, the engine that has propelled the state’s growth for 70 years. Pinal is an example. In 1950, just as the post-war population boom started, Pinal was still a lightly settled farm and mining county with 43,000 residents, nearly 1,200 farmers, 2.5 million acres of farmland, and 13,000 homes.
By 2020 the shrinking agriculture sector counted less than 800 farms and 1.1 million acres of farmland. But the county’s population soared to 425,000 people living in 181,000 homes, most of them built on former farmland.
Pinal County’s long-term plan forecasts that 5 million more residents could show up. At current rates of Arizona’s growth, that means that by mid-century virtually all new state residents will settle in the county. They potentially could if there is sufficient water.
The following data points are important. In 2020, the latest year for complete figures, Pinal’s annual water demand was 950,000 acre-feet; 40 percent from the Central Arizona Project and almost all of the balance from groundwater, according to state data. Farming used most of it, 750,000 acre-feet per year. Cities and industry used just 35,000 acre-feet.
The county anticipates that at current rates of water use serving 5 million more residents, equivalent to 1.5 million new residences, would require 840,000 to 1.7 million acre-feet of additional water supplies every year.
Where’s that water coming from? The Colorado? Not likely. And the state Department of Water Resources has changed its view of how much groundwater will be available.
In 2019 the agency took a fresh look with new groundwater models and announced it made a mistake. Its newest assessment of supply and demand showed that Pinal’s water demand over the next few decades would be 8 million acre-feet over and above the available supply.
Last year the state halted issuing water supply certificates for housing subdivisions. The announcement, though, hasn’t curtailed new construction for housing. Yet. From January 2019 to December 2021, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, Pinal’s municipal authorities issued construction permits for 161,519 new homes that already had been approved.
This project was made possible by a fellowship awarded by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for The American West.
On the Colorado River, the country’s two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are at their lowest levels in 50 years. This could threaten water supplies for Western states and electricity generation from the massive hydropower turbines embedded in the lakes’ dams. In August 2021 the federal government issued a first-ever water shortage declaration for the Colorado, forcing supply cuts in several states.
My work as head archivist for Colorado State University’s Water Resources Archive gives me a unique perspective on these conflicts. Our collection includes the papers of Delph Carpenter, a lawyer who developed the concept of interstate river compacts and negotiated both the Colorado and South Platte agreements.
Carpenter’s drafts, letters, research and reports show that he believed compacts would reduce litigation, preserve state autonomy and promote the common good. Indeed, many states use them now. Viewing Carpenter’s documents with hindsight, we can see that interstate river compacts were an innovative solution 100 years ago – but were written for a West far different from today.
Water for development
In the early 1900s, there was plenty of water to go around. But there weren’t enough dams, canals or pipelines to store, move or make use of it. Devastating floods in California and Arizona spurred plans for building dams to hold back high river flows.
With the Reclamation Act of 1902, Congress directed the Interior Department to develop infrastructure in the West to supply water for irrigation. As the Reclamation Service, which later became the powerful Bureau of Reclamation, moved forward, it began planning for dams that could also generate hydropower. Low-cost electricity and irrigation water would become important drivers of development in the West.
Carpenter worried that downstream states, building dams for their own needs, would demand water from upstream states. He was especially attuned to this issue as a native of mountainous Colorado, the source of four major rivers – the Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande and the Colorado. Carpenter wanted to see upper basin states “adequately protected before the construction of the structures upon the lower river.”
Carpenter also knew about interstate water conflicts. In 1916, a group of Nebraska irrigators sued farmers in Colorado for drying up the South Platte River at the state line. Carpenter was already lead counsel for Colorado in Wyoming v. Colorado, a case involving the Laramie River that began in 1911 and would not be resolved until 1922.
Eventually Carpenter persuaded his Colorado clients to resolve their litigation with Nebraska by negotiating a compact to share water from the South Platte. It took seven years of data collection and discussion, but Carpenter believed the agreement would ensure “permanent peace with our neighboring state.”
West of the Continental Divide, the Colorado River flows more than 1,400 miles southwest to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Once, its delta was a lush network of lagoons; now the river peters out in the desert because states take so much water out of it upstream. https://www.youtube.com/embed/6iqh_fRkhRg?wmode=transparent&start=0 In 2014, the U.S. and Mexico started collaborating to restore the ecosystems of the Colorado River Delta.
When settlers developed the West, their prevailing attitude was that water reaching the sea was wasted, so people aimed to use it all. California had a bigger population than the other six Colorado River Basin states combined, and Carpenter worried that California’s river use could hinder Colorado under the prior appropriation doctrine, which dictates that the first person to use water acquires a right to use it in the future. With the U.S. Reclamation Service studying the Colorado to find good dam sites, Carpenter also feared that the federal government would take control of river development.
Carpenter studied international treaties as models for river compacts. He knew that U.S. states had a right under Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution to make agreements with each other. And he believed that solving water conflicts between states required “statesmanship of the highest order.”
In 1920, officials agreed to try his approach. After the states and the federal government adopted legislation to authorize the process, representatives began meeting as the Colorado River Commission in January 1922, with then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as chair. Meeting minutes show that negotiations nearly collapsed several times, but the end goal of rapid river development held them together.
The commissioners reached agreement in 11 months, adopting a final version of the compact in November 1922. It allocated fixed amounts of water – measured in absolute acre-feet, not percentages of the river’s flow – to the upper and lower basins. With water levels in the river declining, this approach has proved to be a major challenge today.
At their meetings, the commissioners discussed both the variability of the river’s flow and their lack of sufficient data for long-term planning. Yet in the final compact they allowed for dividing up surplus water starting in 1963. We know now that they used optimistic flow numbers measured during a particularly wet period.
A hotter, more crowded West
Today the West faces conditions that Carpenter and his peers did not anticipate. In 1922, Hoover imagined that the basin’s population, which totaled about 457,000 in 1915, might quadruple in the future. Today, the Colorado River supplies some 40 million people – more than 20 times Hoover’s projection.
Testifying before Congress in 1926 about the Colorado River Compact, Hoover stated, “If we can provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” In the face of extreme Western water challenges, it is now up to Westerners to meet – or exceed – that expectation.
Drought-strapped Lake Powell won a major reprieve last week with two emergency agreements that will provide 1 million acre-feet (maf) of Colorado River water this year to boost lake levels and protect its hydropower production.
The water will come from an emergency release of 500,000 acre-feet from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and a 500,000 acre-foot reduction in releases from Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
That’s as much water as it would take to fill Colorado’s Lake Dillon four times, and it will add a significant buffer to Powell, which has dropped to just over 5 maf of stored supplies. The lake has the capacity to store 26 maf.
“This is a short-term Band-Aid,” said Amy Ostdiek, who helped oversee the drought negotiations for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead agency for water planning. “We are going to have to consider the long-term solutions and they have to be balanced.”
The Colorado River Basin covers seven states, as well as Mexico. The basin is divided into an Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 maf of water to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., just downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, on a 10-year running average. This year the Upper Basin will deliver just 7 maf from Lake Powell.
But because the 10-year running average stands at roughly 9 maf, there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.
Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to ensure the four Upper Basin states can meet their legal water delivery obligations to the Lower Basin states. Because of those obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring the ongoing declines in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production seen as a dangerous precursor to a water shortage that could trigger a legal compact crisis.
Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered the release of 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge, and another 36,000 acre-foot release from Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir.
This year is expected to be slightly better from a snowpack and water supply perspective. In Colorado, for instance, snowpack ahead of the spring runoff, sits at 91% of average, above last year’s 79% mark.
But that’s not enough moisture to help any of the reservoirs on the Colorado River’s seven-state system recover, water officials said. It should be enough, however, to protect hydropower production, which has been steadily dropping as Lake Powell has declined.
But it’s not just hydropower and water supplies that are causing concern. The drop in reservoir levels is affecting thousands of boaters and campers across the West, who flock to these storage pools every summer to camp, fish and boat.
John Rauch and his family have operated Cedar Springs Marina on Flaming Gorge for decades. Last year, as he watched the lake shrink, he acted quickly, moving boat docks and accommodating customers whose recreation plans were being altered on a daily basis.
This year’s announcement was no surprise, Rauch said, but the jump in the amount of water being released, a nearly four-fold increase, is worrisome.
Equally concerning is the prospect that more releases will be required next year, Rauch said.
“I think we’re going to lose a lot more water,” he said.
Lake Powell, which can store roughly 26 maf of water when full, and its sister reservoir, Lake Mead, with 29.4 maf of storage, are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. But upstream are three more: Utah’s Flaming Gorge, which holds 1.8 maf when full, Colorado’s Blue Mesa which holds 900,000 acre-feet, and New Mexico’s Navajo Reservoir, with 1.7 maf of storage.
A 20-year megadrought, considered to be the worst in 1,200 years, including two back-to-back intense drought periods during 2020 and 2021, has left each of the reservoirs well below their former levels, with Blue Mesa, for instance, sitting at roughly 40% of capacity with no prospect of refilling this year, and Lake Powell down to about 25% of capacity.
After weeks of closed-door talks with officials from the seven states, Reclamation, which operates the reservoirs, opted to tap Flaming Gorge again this summer because it sits high in the system and could accommodate a release easier than Blue Mesa or Navajo, officials said.
That move, along with the 500,000 acre-foot cutback in releases from Lake Powell, should be enough to protect hydropower production this year, said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
How that water will be restored to the states is unclear. Under the terms of a historic set of Drought Contingency Plans approved in 2019, so-called “recovery” of these water supplies is to be considered when the federal government decides the system is healthy enough again, according to Reclamation.
Reclamation declined an interview request on the new agreements, but in documents released last week it said that little if any recovery is likely over the next four years.
Drought has plagued the Colorado River since the early 2000s and in 2007 the seven states agreed to a hard-fought plan to begin jointly managing the system, hoping that the drought would end before the agreement, known as the Colorado River 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires in 2026.
All seven states are gearing up to renegotiate those guidelines, a process expected to take several years. And water officials across the region are calling for a recognition that the river can no longer produce the water quantities envisioned even as recently as the early 2000s.
What that may mean for water users isn’t clear yet, but all seven states have begun cutting back their use of Colorado River supplies, either because the river has run physically short of water, as in the Upper Basin states, or in the Lower Basin, due to the 2007 guidelines, which tie water-use reductions to levels in lakes Powell and Mead.
For John Rauch, adapting to a more water-short world is going to be a huge undertaking, though not an impossible one.
“It’s a complicated problem,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can … but it’s going to take a lot of snow.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org