Water Shortages: The Big Picture

June 27, 2014

The drought and potential shortages of Colorado River water have everyone talking. That’s good news because no one seems to pay attention to water issues if there isn’t a crisis brewing. It’s also the bad news because everyone–pundits, politicians and prognosticator–has an opinion, which makes it tough to determine how the pieces fit together so we can see the big picture.

Take for example the recent spate of news stories on the declining water level in Lake Mead. It has been accurately reported that Lake Mead is dropping precipitously because less water has been flowing into the lake than is needed to meet the allocations to California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. This shortfall is compounded by evaporation and other losses and by the 14-year drought.

If the lake level drops below 1,000 feet (a projected 13 percent to 29 percent likelihood between 2015 and 2026), barely enough water would be left in storage to meet California’s allocation for one year and California has the highest priority to water from Lake Mead. Translation: there might be no water left for the Central Arizona Project, which brings nearly 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to central Arizona to meet the needs of cities, industries, Indian tribes and farmers.

This is not good news and the seven Colorado River basin states, water users across the region, and the Secretary of the Interior are working to prevent this from happening.

But, the big picture is that the City of Phoenix and the other central Arizona cities would not be forced to cut their water deliveries to customers and will not dry up and blow away as some have suggested if Lake Mead levels continue to drop.

Over the last two decades, the AMWUA cities have collectively stored almost 1.7 million acre-feet of unused surface water and treated wastewater underground as a savings account for use in emergencies – like the one we might be facing from Lake Mead shortages. This stored water would meet our cities’ needs for over two years, but it would never be used up that quickly. That’s because Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona Project makes up only about 37 percent of the AMWUA cities’ water supplies, while Salt and Verde River water (51 percent), treated wastewater (5 percent), and groundwater (7 percent) make up the rest. Add to this the fact that for over 30 years, we’ve stretched every drop of water by making conservation part of our lives and our culture. The AMWUA cities supplies are so robust that the state Department of Water Resources has determined we have enough water for 100 years for existing and planned growth.

That doesn’t mean we can be lackadaisical about Lake Mead. It is in every basin state’s best interest to keep the lake’s water levels higher. Potential solutions include paying farmers to fallow land and non-urban users to conserve more water. Arizona and its water users will contribute our share to decrease the risks of shortages so our Colorado River water will be there when we need it. We are desert dwellers who hope for the best and plan for the worst. Keeping the big picture in mind and having the foresight to make the bold choices and investments needed in these challenging times will ensure that we maintain our resilient water supplies.

Kathleen Ferris the Executive Director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, one of fifteen Water – Use It Wisely partners to offer water-saving and water resource advice and programs. For 45 years, AMWUA has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.

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