'There's simply not enough water': Colorado River cutbacks ripple across Arizona

A view of the Hoover Dam and the Colorado River.
A view of the Hoover Dam and the Colorado River.

Up and down the Colorado River last week, the state, local and tribal leaders in charge of water supplies for more than 40 million people waited to see if the federal government would impose deeper cuts to river allocations.

The Bureau of Reclamation had given states and tribes an Aug. 15 deadline to find ways to conserve 2 to 4 million more acre-feet of water to stabilize the drought-stricken river and its two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Without such a plan, the bureau said, it would act.

The deadline passed with no agreement in place.

And on Tuesday, the government presented its 2023 water forecasts and said based on projected water levels at the two reservoirs, it would institute the next level of water reductions already agreed upon by the seven states and 30 federally recognized tribes within the Colorado River basin. The Drought Contingency Plan outlines specific steps Reclamation would take if the river flows continue to decline.

The next round of cuts to the three lower basin states and Mexico means that Arizona will have to do with 21% less water than in previous years. Nevada lost 8% of its delivery and Mexico's allocation was reduced by 7%. The only lower basin state to be spared cuts is California, which holds senior rights to the river.

The bureau did not impose the deeper cuts as some had anticipated. Instead, Interior Department officials said talks would continue to come up with additional reductions as needed. The agency noted that the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act included $4 billion in money to address drought.

Few people were entirely satisfied with the government's announcement, but one stakeholder went further than the others in expressing disappointment, introducing a new wrinkle in talks among the river's water users.

The Gila River Indian Community said it would no longer voluntarily leave part of its Colorado River allocation in Lake Mead, an arrangement that helped Arizona meet the requirements of a regional agreement last year. Instead, tribal officials said in a statement Tuesday, Gila River would return to banking its water.

Tribes, agencies upset

In December 2021, the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes signed onto an agreement to leave a combined 179,000 acre-feet of their river allotment in Lake Mead as a way to prop up the reservoir.

The agreement was part of a larger pact by several states and water districts to conserve 500,000 acre-feet per year in Lake Mead, where water levels were dropping rapidly. The pact was in addition to other conservation measures and was known as the 500+ plan.

The initiative was a pledge by the Interior Department as well as water agencies and tribes in the three Lower Basin states and stretched through 2023. The two tribes’ contributions made Arizona’s contribution to the effort possible.

Hoover Dam (top right) and Lake Mead on May 11, 2021, on the Arizona and Nevada border. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline. Lake Mead is down 152 vertical feet.
Hoover Dam (top right) and Lake Mead on May 11, 2021, on the Arizona and Nevada border. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline. Lake Mead is down 152 vertical feet.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources committed up to $40 million to the plan over its two-year period, while the Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District in California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority each ponied up $20 million. The federal government matched those contributions for a $200 million pool  to fund fallowing fields and other conservation measures.

But the failure to move forward on a longer term plan to firm up water supplies didn't sit well with Gila River.

"The Community has been shocked and disappointed to see the complete lack of progress in reaching the kind of cooperative basin-wide plan necessary to save the Colorado River system," said Gila River Governor Stephen Roe Lewis.

"We are aware that this approach will have a very significant impact on the ability of the State of Arizona to make any meaningful commitment to water reductions in the basin state discussions," Lewis said, "but we cannot continue to put the interests of all others above our own when no other parties seem committed to the common goal of a cooperative basin-wide agreement."

Lewis also praised the Southern Nevada Water Authority's general manager, John Entsminger, for his plain speaking in an Aug. 15 letter to the Interior Department.

"What has been a slow-moving train wreck for twenty years is accelerating and our moment of reckoning is near." Entsminger wrote. "The unreasonable expectations of water users, including the prices and drought profiteering proposals, only divide common goals and interests."

Entsminger also outlined several steps the states, tribes and water agencies could take to minimize their use of Colorado River water, including agricultural efficiency enhancement, removing lawns, investing in water reuse, recycling and desalination programs and habitat restoration.

“We appreciate the support of Governor Lewis and the Gila River Indian Community for the recommended actions Nevada has put forth," Entsminger said in an emailed statement. "Nevada stands ready to work with any partners who seek solutions based upon real world, equitable and sound scientific principles to the monumental challenges facing the Colorado River.”

In Arizona, officials looked for ways to repair the rift.

"The Gila River Indian Community has a been a big part of the positive actions Arizona has taken to protect Lake Mead in recent years," the Central Arizona Project said in an emailed statement.

The agency praised the tribe for their work to develop the Drought Contingency Plan and in conserving water.

"We are understanding of the Community’s position that others need to be part of the Colorado River solution," the CAP statement said. "We are hopeful that if a broader plan for taking action comes together that Arizona can support, the Community will choose to  participate along with other Arizona water users."

The Arizona Department of Water Resources declined comment on the statement.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes said it would continue to make water available for conservation through 2023.

"The Colorado River Indian Tribes are also development a multiyear farming and fallowing plan that includes additional conservation measures to be implement during 2023 and for many years thereafter," said CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores.

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Feds should act 'to avoid catastrophe'

Other water agencies and elected officials said they would continue to work with Reclamation to develop a longer-term plan to stabilize the reservoirs and assure at least some water would continue to flow.

Phoenix officials said in an emailed statement that although their water customers would not be affected by the cuts, the lack of action by federal officials was "disappointing." The city gave up 23% of its river allocation to stabilize Lake Mead and support Pinal County farmers who lost river water when the first round of cuts was announced a year ago, the statement said.

The city is acting to ensure water deliveries and reduce dependence on the Colorado, officials said. A $300 million pipeline will move water to North Phoenix, which currently relies on the Colorado River for water. Phoenix is also restoring ecosystems in the Salt River, which provides 60% of the city's water, the statement said. And, the city is beefing up infrastructure.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she would work with her newly-created water advisory council, state stakeholders and neighboring states to ensure a secure water future.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis (Gila River Indian Community) talk during the Water Advisory Council meeting, Aug. 8, 2022, in the Hoover Dam Spillway House, 75 Hoover Dam Access Road, Boulder City, Nevada.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis (Gila River Indian Community) talk during the Water Advisory Council meeting, Aug. 8, 2022, in the Hoover Dam Spillway House, 75 Hoover Dam Access Road, Boulder City, Nevada.

"Arizona’s future depends on the strength and resiliency of our water supply," she said via a spokesperson. "As the West continues experiencing historic drought, Arizona has led the way identifying short and long term solutions while shouldering a disproportionate share of this crisis."

Sinema said that $13 billion had been secured for drought resiliency funding over the past year through several bills including the most recent act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and other legislation.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., wrote the Interior Department last week calling for the agency to outline its options to implement mitigation actions to prevent "drastic consequences for Arizona and other Colorado Basin states." If the reservoirs' levels continue to drop, those consequences could include the loss of hydropower generation and even to deadpool conditions, where no water would flow out of Lake Mead.

“In 2022 alone, Arizona farmers, cities, and tribes have pledged resources to conserve over 800,000 acre-feet of water — an amount equal to nearly one-third of our state’s full allocation,” Kelly said in the letter. He added that Arizona has offered to put more "wet" water on the table to be conserved than other states.

At least one congressman also called for more action from the federal government.

“The Colorado River is in crisis, and talks among basin states to fairly spread the pain of much-needed cutbacks are going nowhere," said Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz.. "The federal government must play a stronger role. I’m urging the Administration to take immediate action to avoid catastrophe.”

Stanton said in a letter to President Joe Biden that the cuts announced Aug. 16 were already mandated by the Drought Contingency Plan, while in June, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said that unless another 2 to 4 million acre-feet were cut, the government would take action.

"Yesterday's announcement proved that commitment hollow," Stanton wrote.

One of the largest single water users on the river said it was ready to collaborate on further solutions. The Imperial Irrigation District in southern California manages an allocation of 3.1 million acre-feet, including pass through water, larger than Arizona's entire Colorado River allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet.

Since 2003, the utility has conserved more than 7 million acre-feet of water according to an Aug. 16 statement. The district said it would work to conserve water and to help restore the Salton Sea, which has declined rapidly in recent years as the utility slashed agricultural runoff that fed the lake.

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'We have to take it seriously'

A view of the Colorado River as it flows through the Colorado River Indian Tribes' Ahakhav Tribal Preserve in Parker on Nov. 13, 2021.
A view of the Colorado River as it flows through the Colorado River Indian Tribes' Ahakhav Tribal Preserve in Parker on Nov. 13, 2021.

At least one water expert said he doesn't believe the situation will improve in a year.

"The Colorado River is going to continue to decline," said David Feldman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and director of Water UCI, an institute that studies water problems facing the nation and the world.

He said many of the problems that have arisen from the plunging levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell will be ongoing.

"So you have to start from the baseline that is simply not going to be any more surface water available from this point forward, at least not for the foreseeable future," Feldman said. "The next steps, I believe, should be that each state should figure out a way to get user groups, local governments, water agencies, irrigation districts together in conversations about how they would negotiate targets for prescribed cutbacks based on water availability figures."

Feldman said he understands Gila River's stance.

"The drought did not cause the angst of tribal nations towards allocation agreements," he said, but the drought has exacerbated it. "The tribes have been frustrated. The Navajo Nation, Hopi, others have been concerned for decades now about water allocation agreements on the Colorado and its tributaries."

In depth: Tribes take a central role in water management as drought and climate change effects worsen

He also said the West is still not quite at the point to have a serious conversation about the future of water, "about our children and our children's children." Feldman said that if, as many forecasts predict, climate change is permanent and not just cyclical, water officials will need to plan far ahead.

"What are we going to do about the the water and the water needs and how are we going to plan to aggressively conserve?"

Strategies from recycling and reuse to landscaping all need to be on the table, he said, since outdoor irrigation accounts for one-third to one-half of urban water use. But just reducing urban outdoor use won't be enough to address the shortages to come.

He also disputed some assertions that cities shouldn't exist in arid lands. "The Mesopotamians did okay," Feldman said, as well as the Huhugam in the Salt River Valley. Living in the desert, or having a lot of people, doesn't by itself cause the problem, he said. "It's how we live in that environment."

Feldman pointed out that other arid parts of the world have done well, including Israel. "The Israelis have really become very savvy in the sense of not only developing the technologies, but then realizing there's a market for it," he said.

"We can live in a water scarce environment without sacrificing our quality of life," Feldman said. "But we have to take it seriously."

Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at debra.krol@azcentral.com. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol

Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Colorado River: What happens next after water reductions?