By Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources
Last week’s announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation that Lake Mead is projected at years end to be three feet above the level that would trigger reductions in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico was welcome news.
But we are not out of the woods.
Arizona has built a tradition of acting on its water issues well before the crisis hits. The people of Arizona have come to expect that level of preparation. We are not about to let them down.
Lake Mead’s water level continues to decline and longer term projections show that it could fall to critically low elevations in the face of continued epochal drought. We have not been idle. Arizona and its partners are taking action to lessen the likelihood of that outcome.
The Central Arizona Project, supported by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, created financial incentives and other programs for agricultural, municipal and tribal water users to conserve water in Lake Mead. About three feet have been saved as a result. Mexico, California and Nevada are taking similar steps to keep water in the lake.
Those landmark actions are not enough, however.
If Lake Mead declines further, planned reductions in deliveries to Arizona agreed to in 2007 will kick in. While Arizona has prepared for those reductions by storing water underground, conserving water and carefully managing its groundwater and other supplies, even more must be done.
Simply put, no one knows when this drought might end. Responsible, prudent water management demands that we assume it will end no time soon.
Arizona has been negotiating with Nevada and California to put together a suite of actions, the next incremental step in protecting the lake. Those actions include Arizona and Nevada taking additional reductions and at higher elevations than those agreed to in 2007. California would take reductions as well but not before the lake has fallen to still lower levels. Current law states that California does not take reductions in deliveries until the Central Arizona Project completely dries up. Equity and fairness demand a different outcome.
Actions contemplated by all three states are groundbreaking, unprecedented and the negotiations are sensitive and difficult. Those discussions continue to evolve.
If the states can reach a new agreement – no sure thing, at this stage – the impact will be more significant than the cutbacks agreed to in 2007. Within Arizona impacts will vary between agriculture, municipalities and tribes. They will even vary between individual tribes, municipalities and agricultural water users.
There are opportunities to partially mitigate those impacts and, more importantly, to spread the impacts more equitably among agriculture, municipalities and tribes. To that end, I have begun to reach out to water managers in Arizona to explore a collective and voluntarily sharing of the impacts and benefits attendant to this potential new agreement.
No agreements have been reached. No decisions have been made. Water users, their principals and their governing bodies need room to discuss, debate and deliberate.
Our discussions will be complex, collegial, at times contentious and always passionate. They will take time to play out but they must continue. That is the history and the nature of managing our most precious resource.
The actions we are contemplating can only be finalized with support of the water community and the decision makers at the state, local and tribal level in Arizona.
The challenges are significant. There is no avoiding that.
But with a firm commitment to sound water management from Gov. Ducey, we’ve been making hard choices when it matters most.
That has been the hallmark of Arizona water management for many decades. That ethic is in play once again.