Editor’s note: This story was revised on Aug. 18 to include additional information.
Arizona will lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet from its federally apportioned Colorado River water deliveries next year, on top of a 512,000 acre-foot reduction already in place this year.
The cuts will impact the lower-priority water user groups served by the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which funnels Colorado River water through the desert to Arizona cities, towns, tribes and farms.
And on August 16, federal officials said the states that use the river’s water still need to come to an agreement to further reduce what they’re pulling out of the strained water system, even though water officials in Arizona and in other Colorado River Basin states already missed an August 15 deadline the federal Bureau of Reclamation gave them to reach a deal.
The water cuts were announced by the bureau, which said that Lake Mead will operate under Level 2a “shortage conditions” next year. That lake was already in a Level 1 shortage for 2022; the bureau declared a water shortage at Lake Mead for the first time ever last August.
Ted Cooke, general manager of CAP, said the reduced water deliveries will wipe out Colorado River water contracts for CAP’s agricultural pool and Non-Indian Agricultural pool in 2023. The Agricultural pool includes water contracts for irrigation districts that serve farmers. The Non-Indian Agricultural pool includes a wide range of contracts: for tribes including the Gila River Indian Community; commercial projects like the Resolution Copper mining project; and 11 cities, including Phoenix, Mesa and Marana.
However, the new cuts don’t mean that all those water users will be left out to dry. As much as 75% of the cuts to the Non-Indian Agricultural contracts could be “mitigated” next year by tapping into other water sources, Cooke said. Plus, CAP’s two higher-priority allocation groups, the Indian pool and the Municipal & Industrial pool, won’t be impacted by the cuts – and many end users have water contracts in both pools.
For instance, the city of Phoenix is entitled to 37,000 acre-feet of water through Non-Indian Agricultural contracts, according to information provided by a CAP spokeswoman. But CAP delivery records show that Phoenix is set to receive over 158,000 acre-feet through subcontracts in the Municipal & Industrial pool this year.
One acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, and the average Arizona resident uses approximately 146 gallons of water per day, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. In 2020, according to the agency, the Colorado River provided 36% of Arizona’s total water supply.
The Level 2a shortage determination is the result of ongoing water monitoring and projections by Bureau of Reclamation. In a report released August 16, the agency estimated the lake will be between 1,045 and 1,050 feet above sea level by January 1, 2023. On August 16, it was at 1,042 feet, down from 1,068 a year ago.
Nevada and Mexico also face cuts under Level 2a conditions, but Arizona takes the biggest hit. Arizona’s baseline annual allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet will be reduced by a total of 592,000 acre-feet in 2023, which amounts to a reduction of 21% of annual supply. Nevada’s cuts come to 25,000 acre-feet below baseline, or 8% of its annual allotment. Mexico will lose 104,000 acre-feet from its baseline, about 7% of the country’s yearly share.
California, which takes the largest portion of Lake Mead water deliveries at 4.4 million acre-feet per year, doesn’t face reductions in the Level 2a condition.
The cutbacks are dictated by a 2007 agreement that outlines progressive reductions in water deliveries from Lake Mead given different water levels.
On top of the reductions triggered by the decreasing water levels, the Bureau of Reclamation said that more needs to be done.
“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” bureau Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo said in a news release.
In June, the bureau gave Colorado River Basin states and Mexico two months to negotiate an agreement to cut an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water use, setting August 15 as the deadline to reach a deal.
In recent days it became clear that there was no deal, and different states started finger-pointing.
“Arizona and Nevada put forward an aggressive proposal that would achieve 2 (million acre-feet) of reductions among the Lower Basin and Mexico in 2023 and beyond. That proposal was rejected,” Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a joint statement on August 16.
“It is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed,” they added later in the statement.
In a call with reporters on August 16, Buschatzke and Cooke declined to detail exactly what the proposal was but said it would have mandated cuts generally in proportion to different states’ shares of the total allotment. They made it clear that California was the holdout against their proposal.
Without an agreement from the states by the deadline, some expected the federal government to announce that it would unilaterally impose more cutbacks.
Instead, Bureau of Reclamation officials indicated they’re still hoping the states can come to a compromise.
“I want to continue to push on the need for partnership in the basin and the need for collaboration and finding a consensus solution, not just for next year, but for the future,” said bureau Commissioner Camille Camlimlim Touton, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Buschatzke said that the feds could help the states reach a deal by ratcheting up the pressure a few notches – making it clear what kind of cutbacks the federal government would impose if there’s no deal among the states.
The purpose, Buschatzke said, would be “to get us to understand that a deal that we can put together among the water users in the states, while imperfect, might still be better than what might be imposed upon us.”
Also on August 16, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which sets aside $4 billion to address the Colorado River shortage. That money could eventually be used for things like urban water conservation projects or to pay farmers to let their fields go fallow.