In August 2021, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior declared the first-ever Tier 1 shortage for the Colorado River operations being executed by the Bureau of Reclamation – the federal bureau in charge of declaring water shortages. The shortage, which began in January 2022, resulted in substantial cuts to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River, placing more burden on the shoulders of Central Arizona Project (CAP) water users. This has resulted in less available Colorado River water for central Arizona agricultural users, and could soon impact river-dependent cities.
“This may be the new normal,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke said, referring to the Colorado River diminishing by 22 years of drought and a warming climate. “This may be what we have to live with, ostensibly forever.”
Phoenix and Tucson have previously banked excess water in the ground giving them sufficient supplies to keep tap water running despite cutbacks. The majority of Arizona’s water supply is used outdoors, with a third of it coming from the Colorado River. Farms use approximately 70 percent of the water, with the bulk of the remaining water being used in outdoor urban landscaping, golf courses, swimming pools, etc. Municipal water officials in the state have also reported not being ready to restrict outdoor watering, despite concerns that a Tier 2 shortage may be declared as soon as August. If that happens it would mean even more cuts to the amount of water Arizona gets from the river.
Arizona is normally entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water. This year, due to both federally-mandated cuts and state efforts to lessen further cuts in future years, Arizona is leaving 500,000 acre-feet of water behind the Hoover Dam which accounts for an additional third of the water pumped across the desert through the Central Arizona Project. A Tier 2 shortage, if declared, would cut an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water, and a Tier 3 shortage, which Arizona Department of Water Resources director Tom Buschatzke fears is possible in 2024, would push the state’s losses above 700,000 acre-feet, enough to support several million households, though farmers would still feel the most impact from losses.
The state has been desperately searching for ways in which to curb or significantly reduce impacts from the drought on residents. Some plans call for the paying of water users to leave water in the largest reservoirs, some plans call for a $1 billion investment into a new Arizona Water Authority, other plans outline desalination plants in Mexico and California, but regardless of what is decided upon, the execution of such plans will remain costly. Water managers at a shortage briefing urged Arizonans to consider the Colorado River as permanently challenged.