Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Arizona Water Institute, says that, on paper, Arizona seems to have enough water, but the reality is that many parts of the state are in trouble.

"If you take the total supply and the total demand, the answer is no [there is not a crisis]," she says. "There's no one in the municipal parts of the state turning on the faucet and not getting water. In the rural parts of the state, there are."

Jacobs is talking about towns like Strawberry, Pine, and Payson that run out of water and have to haul it in every year during peak tourist season.

Jamie Peachey
Jamie Peachey

Flagstaff has similar problems — the city is growing, but its groundwater sits underneath almost-impenetrable rock.

Towns along the Verde River, like Cottonwood, are in legal trouble with SRP for drawing water away from the river (which SRP has first right to) through the wells people in rural areas dig to survive on.

And though Phoenix has a sure supply right now (and for the foreseeable future), there are no sure things in the water game.

The Colorado River, the water source for the Central Arizona Project that runs water through 300 miles of canals to Phoenix and Tucson, is in major trouble.

Arizona gets 2.8 million acre-feet — the measurement used for large amounts of water — a year from the river. CAP gets 1.5 million of that.

(To put things in perspective, an acre-foot is 324,851 gallons, and it takes one acre-foot to support two average Phoenix households for a year.)

Each year, the Colorado is expected to supply 16.5 million acre-feet for human use. But, when this allocation was determined almost 100 years ago, the people who calculated the number made a mistake, basing their calculations on a figure much bigger than the amount of water that is in the river on average.

Today, thanks to tree-ring research, we know the river provides only about 13.5 million acre-feet per year on average. And depending how the climate changes in the next few years, that amount could drop.

It's not as if no one saw this coming. Back in 1968, when the feds and state governments were planning the CAP, a legislative report noted the problem: "There is more Colorado River water already committed . . . than will be available from the river."

They went ahead with the project anyway. Whether or not CAP is a good thing is open for debate — but it's a useless debate. The project is done, it was extremely expensive, and it's not going anywhere.

The question has now become, what to do about the fact that in the very near future it might not have a dependable water source.

Forty years after the first report, Arizona hired a consulting firm — Colorado River Water Consultants — to tell it the same thing.

"It has been determined that the base flow used to establish Colorado River allocations was abnormally high," the report confirms.


Where there's too little water for CAP, there's too much for SRP.

It's an environmentally unpopular thing to say, but SRP might someday need a new reservoir. Case in point: With this winter's violent rainstorms and low snow melt, the small reservoirs on the Verde River were quickly overwhelmed and even Roosevelt Lake — our biggest reservoir — is almost full.

There aren't any current plans for a new reservoir, which would likely eat up acres of land in Arizona's already damaged riparian areas, much to the chagrin of environmental groups, but Bruce Hallin, SRP's business development and strategic analysis director, isn't ruling it out totally.

"If we had a larger reserve on the Verde, we would have been able to capture more water. But there are challenges related to environmental issues and public perception," he says. "On the other hand, if we continue to have significant climate change and start seeing more drastic shifts in the water supply when it comes to higher highs and lower lows, that may be an answer we pursue. No one knows for sure."

It's not likely to be easy, if it ever becomes an option at all. Environmental groups don't take well to the destruction of wildlife for a dam that will supply water to only one place. There isn't a great site for a new reservoir and no real way to mitigate the damage to rare desert species.

On top of that, most people who have been in the water business a while remember the PR disasters that were Orme and Cliff dams, two reservoirs proposed for the Verde river in the '70s and '80s, respectively.

Neither was a great proposal — Orme would have flooded most of the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation — and both would have caused significant habitat damage for endangered eagles.

Thanks to modern technology, it's a fight that might never be fought. SRP and the Arizona Department of Water Resources are currently investing in water banking — essentially pumping water back into underground aquifers — as an alternative. Unlike reservoirs, which can lose up to six feet of water a year to evaporation, water stored underground is there until we need it.

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7 comments
DoggieCombover
DoggieCombover

Conservation in the Phoenix metro area means saving it for developers so they can keep on doing what they do. I use as much water as I care to, without much thought of conserving, for that reason.

Ryan
Ryan

This article is grossly inaccurate, and is oozing with negativity. The article's message inherently makes zero sense. The unfortunate issue, and frankly the only fact the author seemed to be on top of, is that of water politics in the West being the driver here. Drought or no drought, she got it right in saying use it or lose it. Hello, this applies to dams, prior appropriators, and water rights attached to land ownership, not to people living in a city of 5 million that can use as much water as they want.

All hope is lost if all Phoenicians think in this negative and "holding out till the big one" way. Get with it New Times.

Shane
Shane

Get it straight.... 1.0 acre foot = 325,851 gallons. An acre is 43,560 square feet. There are approx 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot, so to cover an acre of land with one foot of water is 7.4808 X 43,560 = 325,851 gallons. The avg US urban household uses .3 acre feet per year, or 97,755 gallons.

Erich
Erich

Your report is grossly inaccurate and without writing a comment as long as your article, I would like to point a few things out.1-golf courses in the valley ALL use reclaimed water to water with and fill there lakes. We need the golf courses to get rid of our treated (grade A) wastewater. 2- Fountain Hills uses reclaimed water as well.3- Do your research, and you'll find the rest of your inaccuracies.

Joe Sitarzewski
Joe Sitarzewski

The note: (To put things in perspective, an acre-foot is 235,851 gallons, and it takes 287,000 acre-feet to support two average Phoenix households for a year.) in your article is grossly inaccurrate. It may take 235,851 GALLONS to support two average Phoenix households for a year, but I rather doubt it would take 67,689,237,000 GALLONS (287,000 acre-feet) to support two average Phoenix households for a year, even though that may actually be closer than an 1/2 acre-foot per year estimate. Also, the reason Arizona will never change water law is because the Governor and Legislature are both owned by SRP and CAP. The 85% of the population in Phoenix and Tucson won't give up a single drop of water and they'll continue trying to figure out any way possible to steal it from rural Arizonans.

Omar Tentmaker
Omar Tentmaker

Here is approximately how water in the western U.S. is used: irrigation of crops,76%; power plants for cooling,13%; municipal,8%;,industrial,1%; and livestock,1%. Most of the water used for irrigation is for low value applications, especially hay. This water allocation arrangement got started early in the last century when almost the only folks who lived in the west were farmers. Today there is ample water in the west. The real issue is political: getting the water away from low value farming crops to higher value applications.

 
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