Water supply from the Colorado River will not run short next year, contrary to the dismal projections that Arizona had braced for until a few months ago.
Water managers even expect to stave off a shortage in 2017 thanks to an unusually wet spring and a multistate agreement to take less water out of Lake Mead, the reservoir that stores water for lower-basin states and Mexico.
The Bureau of Reclamation released a report Monday that projects Lake Mead to stand more than seven feet above the level that would trigger a shortage.
The bureau would declare a shortage if it expected the lake to stand at 1,075 feet or lower by the end of this year.
The assessment is made each August.
Lake Mead hit record lows this summer, even dipping below that 1,075-foot line for a brief period, but recovered enough to paint a rosier forecast.
This does not mean that we’re in the clear. Projections start getting dicey after 2017 — and it’s not because the Southwest is stuck in a drought.
Lower-basin states consume more water from the river than what it provides.
They’ve been draining Lake Mead since river allocations were made in the early 1900s because the deal has never taken into account vast amounts of water lost to evaporation or the moving process.
That reality hasn’t thrown us into shortages before because the upper basin hasn’t used its full allocation for years, which has allowed excess water from Lake Powell to flow into Lake Mead.
The two lakes can store up to four times the normal flow of the river. That storage has held us over through dry years, said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for the Central Arizona Project.
That’s partly why the lower-basin states are in the clear for 2016. Colorado cities had abundant local supplies for water thanks to an unusually wet June.
The cities left water they’d otherwise use in Lake Powell, which then made its way into Lake Mead and helped keep the water level just above the critical line.
“This is a sigh of relief, because we’re getting extra water from the upper basin,” he said. “If that hadn’t occurred we would be having a very different conversation.”
The news is also a relief for much of the farming community, which would have lost half of its share of the Colorado River water had a shortage been declared. That agreement is designed to protect cities, towns and Indian reservations from suffering major, immediate water cut backs.
The news also means that the Arizona Water Banking Authority can continue stocking up water. The state would have to stop storing excess river water if a shortage was declared.
Cullom said the CAP and partners in other states are exploring options to close the gap including increasing conservation, developing reuse projects or working toward desalination options. The “sigh of relief” buys time to work our these problems before they turn into a crisis, he said.
The states have started chipping away at the problem.
Major river users agreed last year to leave hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in Lake Mead by 2017 that they would otherwise take. The Central Arizona Project’s share is 345,000 acre-feet, or the equivalent of more than 170,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Arizona’s water-saving strategies include offering incentives to farmers in Yuma to leave some citrus fields fallow and to farmers in central Arizona to cut back on their water consumption.
Phoenix is also tapping into banked water behind the Roosevelt Dam to offset some of its usual consumption directly from the Colorado River.
Phoenix only uses two-thirds of its allotted share, anyway, and has recently begun storing its excess in Tucson aquifers. Residents in both cities have scaled back their water consumption over the past couple of decades, following the statewide trend indicating that households are using less and less.
The 1980 Groundwater Management Act pressed cities to decrease per-capita use. Many have offered incentives for people to remove lawns or update appliances, launching water conservation education initiatives.
“Slowly over time the message has been sinking in that we have a limited water supply and we need to use it wisely,” said Kathleen Ferris, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. “It’s really important that we continue to be thoughtful about how we use our water supplies. That we be mindful that we’re still in a drought and that we have a lot of work left to do.”
Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Thomas Buschatzke said the state would continue to look for measures to avoid a water crisis and encouraged residents to continue conserving.