Arizona agency angers Colorado River users upstream

The spat offers a preview of what water politics could look like in a drier future.

 

This article was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Lake Mead is the country’s biggest reservoir of water. Think of it as the savings account for the entire Southwest. Right now, that savings account is nearly overdrawn.

Lake Mead's water intakes in 2014, when the water elevation was 1,106 feet above sea level. If the reservoir drops below 1,075 feet, that could trigger the first legally-mandated cutbacks for certain water users.

For generations, we’ve been using too much of the Colorado River, the 300-foot-wide ribbon of water that carved the Grand Canyon, supplies Lake Mead, and serves as the main water source for much of the American West.

The river sustains one in eight Americans — about 40 million people — and millions of acres of farmland. In the next 40 years, the region is expected to add at least 10 million more people, as the region’s rainfall becomes more erratic.

An especially dismal snowpack this past winter has forced a long-simmering dispute over water rights to the fore, one that splits people living above and below Lake Mead.

It’s a messy, confusing situation, so here’s an overview of who’s involved and what’s at stake:

Users of Colorado River water below Lake Mead — including the cities of Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas (collectively referred to as the “lower basin”) — rely on the reservoir as a lifeline. The people in the lower basin exist partly at the mercy of what happens in the upper basin, an area encompassing the snowcapped peaks of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico, the source region of the river.

Big water users in the upper basin — Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, among others — are also getting nervous because snowpack in the Rockies has been dwindling, and there’s no physical way for them to store the water they depend on. There are no big reservoirs in the Rockies.

In recent weeks, tensions are rising after states in the upper basin sent a strongly worded letter to one of the river’s biggest users, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, or CAWCD, which supplies water to Tucson and Phoenix. The upper basin states accused the utility of manipulating the complex system that governs Lake Mead in order to get more water. The Arizona utility denied the charges.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District operates the Central Arizona Project, 336 miles of canals, tunnels and pipelines that deliver Colorado River water to cities, irrigation districts and tribal nations.

An upper basin city — Pueblo, Colorado — then pulled out of a regional conservation program, further threatening the spirit of long-term cooperation throughout the Colorado River basin. Denver has threatened to do the same. The quick escalation shows just how fragile the system really is.

In an email to Grist, Kathryn Sorensen, director of Phoenix’s Water Services Department, says the city “does not and has never supported CAWCD’s attempt to draw additional water” from the Colorado River. She said that the only way forward “is through collaboration among all stakeholders in the basin.”

The whole thing feels like the beginnings of a water war fought with cryptic, wonky tweets. As longtime Western water journalists Luke Runyon and Bret Jaspers recently wrote, “public shaming is how water managers police themselves.”

What’s happening could be seen as the slow death of an era of easy living, the unwinding of a nearly 100-year-old series of multi-state compacts (collectively called “The Law of the River”) that’s been widely viewed as too permissive. Over-reliance on the Colorado River has helped pave the way for rapid population growth across the region, from Southern California to Denver, which may now, ironically, begin to pose a threat to those same cities.

For many reasons, Arizona is last in line for the Colorado River’s water, and the state is already preparing for the mandatory restrictions that could be less than two years away. The latest official projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the Colorado River system, shows that Lake Mead is likely to dip below the critical threshold of 1,075 feet above sea level late next year. That could trigger the first official “call on the river” — a legally-mandated cutback for certain users aimed at avoiding an all-out free-for-all.

In Phoenix, a worst-case scenario is now looking more and more likely. In just a few years from now, if (or, when) Lake Mead dips below 1,075 feet, the city may find itself in a position where it stops building new subdivisions, the state’s agricultural economy comes crashing to a permanent halt, and a fit of well-drilling begins to deplete the local groundwater.

And then there’s always climate change. On the world’s current emissions trajectory, sharply warming temperatures boost the odds of a megadrought in the Southwest sometime later this century to more than 99 percent. Such a drought would last a generation. Nearly all trees in the Southwest could die. The scale of the disaster would have the power to reshape the course of U.S. history.

For now, the spat over the Colorado River offers a glimpse into water politics in an era of permanent scarcity. The low snowpack in the upper basin states means that inflows into Lake Mead will be just 43 percent of normal this year, raising the stakes for conservation programs throughout the West. In the midst of long-running drought, 2017 was the most successful year for water conservation in decades — which is evidence that when there’s less water around, people can make things work.

“We must all find a way to collectively use less water while respecting the Law of the River,” Sorensen says. “That’s of course a tricky proposition because the Law of the River is basically the most complex governance structure ever created by human beings.”

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and staff writer for Grist, covering climate science, policy, and solutions. He has previously written for the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and a variety of other publications.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...