Climate change is causing hotter temperatures in Arizona and other areas of the Southwest, leading to drought conditions that are leaving Colorado River states grappling with what actions to take next.
Experts say that the current drought is no coincidence, but that the dry conditions are linked to climate change. The hotter temperatures lead to the ground becoming drier and water evaporating more quickly. As a result, there is less groundwater and less water flowing into lakes and rivers. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions predicts that climate change will continue to get worse.
Estimates by the National Drought Mitigation Center say that more than 3 million Arizonans are living in drought areas. The longest duration of drought in Arizona lasted 512 weeks starting on August 18, 2009, and ending on June 4, 2019, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System’s website. The most intense period of drought in the state occurred the week of December 1, 2020, the website said. Drought is characterized by a string of dry years, occasionally interrupted by a wet year or two.
Many of the water related issues in Arizona stream back to the Colorado River. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, the Colorado River provides water to seven states, 40 million people, 4 million acres of farmland and 29 Indian tribes. As years of drought continue, water supplies become more strained.
“The Colorado River Basin states have been aware of this problem for a while,” said Margaret Garcia, an Arizona State University professor with the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “The challenge is that it’s that what they really need to do is negotiate a way to use less permanently, and everyone’s digging in their heels a little bit, because you don’t want to be the one to have big losses, and you want to retain as many resources for your state as you can.”
The state of Arizona will need to make difficult decisions and have tough conversations. As rivers and lakes lower, it is becoming clear that ignoring the problem is no longer sustainable. Water restrictions will cut Arizona’s water supply by 21%. The agricultural industry will be hit especially hard by these limitations.
As climate change gets worse, states, counties and industries will have to have challenging conversations. They must decide which state will face more severe cuts in water use.
Mark Apel, the environmental projects coordinator with Cochise County, said 92% of water in the county is being used for agriculture.
However, because of the lowering water table, Apel said that local farmers are being forced to move away to find work due to unsustainable conditions. Many farmers and ranchers pump well water, but as the ground dries up, they are given a difficult decision. Spend more money to dig deeper into the ground or look elsewhere for work.
Many people have the misconception that Arizona is a barren desert, but according to Stefanie Smallhouse, state president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, Arizona has a strong farming and ranching industry.
Arizona agriculture is a $23.3 billion industry, Smallhouse said. She added that Yuma provides 90% of the nation’s lettuce. Because of the plentiful sunshine, Arizona farmers are able to grow crops year-round. However, the arid conditions are putting this industry in jeopardy. Smallhouse said policymakers should consider the important impact of Arizona agriculture when making decisions about water cuts.
“Everyone else is trying to figure out how to use less water. And in the process, you know, they’re looking to agriculture as a water bank instead of a food bank. And that’s troubling,” Smallhouse said. “We’re not going to necessarily conserve ourselves out of these problems that we’re having currently. It’s gonna require a lot more augmentation.”
Smallhouse said people need to think about whether they want local food production or to obtain produce from another country because for every gallon of water taken away from agriculture to provide to future development “that’s food production you’re taking away.” She also said that something as simple as transitioning from maintaining a grassy lawn to installing native plant species can make a difference in conserving water to help sustain the agricultural industry.
The federal government is also working to chip away at the water crisis. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act allocated $4 billion to drought relief.
Nevada also is experiencing extreme drought conditions. As a result, Lake Mead, which lies on the Arizona-Colorado border, has experienced an alarming decrease in water. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lake Mead is at its lowest level since 1937.
As of July, Lake Mead was only filled at 27% capacity. Images of the lake show a striking difference between 2000 and 2022. The lake, connected to the Colorado River, is closed off by the Hoover Dam. The record-low level is concerning because it provides water and generates electricity to 25 million people across farms, cities, and tribal lands.
Despite the seemingly grim situation, the city of Phoenix is taking a more optimistic approach.
“Phoenix is built for drought,” Phoenix’s website says. “However, the city is prepared to establish such restrictions in future years if absolutely necessary to ensure the safety and health of our residents.” It continues, telling Arizonans to “embrace the desert lifestyle.”
The city of Phoenix also says that the metro area has a variety of water sources available, including the Colorado River, Verde River and Salt River. It assures residents that Arizona has experienced decades long droughts over the past 1,000 years and that Arizona’s water demand has decreased by 30% over the past 20 years.
To learn more about Arizona’s drought, visit https://new.azwater.gov/drought/drought-status.