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 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 , as the region’s rainfall becomes more erratic.

An 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 () — 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 are no big reservoirs in the Rockies.

In recent weeks, 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 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 , further threatening the spirit of long-term cooperation throughout the Colorado River basin. Denver has . 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 . As longtime Western water journalists Luke Runyon and Bret Jaspers , “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 (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, 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 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, 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 . 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 this year, raising the stakes for conservation programs throughout the West. In the midst of long-running drought, — 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.  

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • 5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • 3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • 4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • 5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.