Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Thomas Buschatzke says the Grand Canyon State is not in a “water crisis,” tied to a century-plus of planning which has helped conserve the ‘liquid gold’ amid rapid population and economic growth.
Yet Arizona’s water pendulum is swinging closer to an official shortage tied to prolonged drought in the Colorado River basin and more promises of the same.
“A shortage on the Colorado River system is likely,” Buschatzke told agricultural water leaders at the 2015 Agribusiness & Water Council of Arizona (ABWC) annual meeting held in Tempe, Ariz.
“We are getting pretty close to a shortage. It’s looming quickly,” the director said.
Buschatzke shared the findings of a water model developed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). It suggests a 33-percent probability of a level one drought call on the Colorado River in 2016. The odds could more than double to 71 percent in 2017.
If or when a call is declared, Arizona would face the largest water reduction among the lower basin states which also includes California and Nevada.
Overall, Arizona has junior water rights on the river and would face the steepest water cuts under a stage one shortage call - 320,000 acre feet less from the Colorado River.
Nevada’s water supply from the river would be cut 13,000 acre feet. Mexico – under an amendment to the Mexican Water Treaty - would receive 50,000- acre-feet less water.
California’s allocation of 4.4 million acre feet would not be cut under a 1968 law.
“While (potential) shortages in 2016 or 2017 do not pose a (water) crisis for Arizona, they signal a need for all Colorado River water users to accelerate efforts to address the growing imbalance between supply and demand,” Buschatzke told the farm water crowd.
USBR could make a shortage call when the water level at Arizona’s Lake Mead storage reservoir falls to a depth of 1,075 feet on Jan. 1 of any given year. Actually, USBR would actually make the call in the preceding August to provide water entities time to prepare for a Jan. 1 water reduction.
Arizona - 320,000 acre feet shortfall
The Colorado River provides about 40 percent of Arizona’s water supply, including surface water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP) from the Parker area in northwestern Arizona to water users in much of Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties.
CAP currently delivers about 200,000 acres of Colorado River water to central Arizona farm land. The 320,000 acre feet surface water cut would be placed squarely on the backs of central Arizona farmers.
There would be no water cuts to municipal and industrial users.
Buschatzke said, “The biggest ‘bang’ will be on agriculture within the CAP service area…They would lose half of their agricultural pool water or more.”
Arizona entities with senior water rights on the Colorado River, including the City of Yuma and Yuma-area agriculture, would not receive a water reduction.
Eating computer chips?
Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA), discussed the potential water cuts to central Arizona agriculture. He suggests that cuts should be made elsewhere to allow farmers to continue what they do best – feeding and clothing the world.
The ag director, and a farmer-rancher himself, says water cuts to agriculture would be a “big mistake.” Killian called agriculture a “strategic U.S. industry.”
“I can’t eat computer chips. My computer doesn’t clothe me. Maybe it’s time we revisit some of these (water) agreements,” he said.
Killian cited agriculture’s economic contributions to the state - a $17 billion industry with a payroll of nearly $500 million annually.
The third state-level water speaker at the ABWC conference was Lisa Adams, outgoing Central Arizona Project chairman who now serves as the Arizona Land Commissioner. She noted that 2015 is the 30th anniversary of the CAP’s first water delivery.
Adams says the near term Colorado River shortage will not only impact water supplies available to central Arizona farmers but future water banking and replenishment efforts. CAP has worked with the agricultural community for years to develop strategies aimed at innovation and conservation.
Central Arizona Project success
Adams unveiled a new CAP-produced Colorado River shortage video which included these key points:
1 - From 1986-2010, CAP water deliveries generated more than one trillion dollars in Arizona’s gross state product.
2 - CAP has generated an economic benefit of more than $100 billion per year or one-third of Arizona’s gross state product.
3 – CAP-delivered water created more than 1.6 million jobs in 2010.
Adams credited Arizona farmers for embracing new technologies over the years to conserve water, noting, “Central Arizona agriculture has some of the most efficient water use in the entire Colorado River.”
She said, “More than 90 percent of the irrigated acres in central Arizona use irrigation technology which can achieve or exceed 80 percent irrigation efficiency which is the state’s goal.”
Water losses in agriculture have been well below 10 percent since 1985, averaging 3 percent in recent years thanks to field laser leveling, drip irrigation, and other water conservation practices.
CAP can deliver about 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona annually. More than 80 percent of the state’s population – more than five-million-plus - lives in Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties where CAP water is delivered.
CAP carries water from Lake Havasu near Parker to the southern boundary of the San Xavier Indian Reservation southwest of Tucson. It is a 336-mile-long system of aqueducts, tunnels, pumping plants, and pipelines; the largest single resource of renewable water supplies in Arizona.