Jun 15, 2022 - News

More proposed water cuts could hit Arizona

Animated illustration of a spigot with droplets of water falling.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's commissioner wants Colorado River basin states to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by 2023 in response to the megadrought in the western U.S. That could mean additional cutbacks for Arizona.

What happened: Commissioner Camille Touton told the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during a hearing Tuesday that a lot has already been done to help cope with the drought.

  • Other plans to conserve additional water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two major reservoirs for Colorado River water, are already underway. But Touton said more action is needed.
  • The additional water conservation is to ensure that Lake Mead and Lake Powell don’t experience what is known as "dead pool" conditions, which means the elevation is too low for water to flow downstream from their dams.

Why it's important: The Central Arizona Project (CAP), a recipient of Colorado River water, has junior priority status, meaning it takes cuts before other states.

  • When the first phase of a 2019 Drought Contingency Plan was enacted last year, farmers in Pinal County took the brunt of the cuts to CAP's water allocation.
  • Touton told the committee she's hoping Colorado River water users can negotiate a deal to conserve the additional water in the next 60 days, before the bureau's 24-month study on the river's reservoir conditions is released.
  • "It is in our authorities to act unilaterally to protect the system. And we will protect the system. But today we are pursuing a path of partnership. We are working with the states and tribes in having this discussion," Touton said.

Sen. Mark Kelly, a member of the committee, noted that Arizona has low-priority water rights on the Colorado River and said additional cuts would restrict water deliveries to cities, tribes and farms in the Phoenix and Tucson areas.

  • Kelly pressed Touton on whether the bureau is "prepared to take actions to impose restrictions on other states without regard to river priority" if an agreement can't be reached among the Colorado River basin states on how to conserve the water.
  • She wouldn't make that commitment, telling Kelly, "Yes, we will protect the system. But we're not at that decision point yet. So let's get to the table and let's figure this out by August."

Flashback: Between its cuts from the drought contingency plan and its contributions to the 500+ Plan, which aims to leave at least a half-million additional acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, Arizona has conserved about 800,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water this year.

What they're saying: "It is gratifying to hear the commissioner's commitment to protecting the system. It is vital, however, that the states propose a plan before the United States is forced to take that drastic action unilaterally,"Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a statement to Axios.

  • Buschatzke agreed with Touton's assessment that an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water must be conserved.

Ted Cooke, the CAP's general manager, said in a statement to Axios that he also supports Touton’s call for additional conservation.

  • "Collaboration has been a hallmark in Arizona and across the basin. Now, more than ever before, it will be essential to work together as we take action to address the effects of drought and climate change throughout the Colorado River Basin system," Cooke said.

The big picture: If the drought continues as expected, experts predict that the second tier of the Drought Contingency Plan will be implemented next year.

  • That would mean cuts to water deliveries for Phoenix, Tucson, other cities and several tribes. The third phase of the plan could go into effect by 2024, which would bring even deeper cuts.
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