Is Lake Mead Half Empty or Half Full? Predictions for Arizona's Water Future

The Lake Mead waterline has fallen more than 100 feet since 2000.EXPAND
The Lake Mead waterline has fallen more than 100 feet since 2000.
Sean Holstege

Whether you view the lake as half full or half empty depends on your outlook.

Objectively, of course, Lake Mead is definitely well beyond half empty. But we like people who challenge orthodoxy around here, so a new study about Arizona’s water woes caught our eye.

Western Resource Advocates, a water conservation group based in Colorado, issued a sobering report last week about Arizona’s water shortage. “Arizona’s Water Future” concludes that it’s a tossup whether the state will have to begin water rationing next year.

There's nothing too radical about suggesting our water needs are dire and unsustainable. But accompanying the release of its report, the advocacy group added a blog interview with a leading water researcher who poses the idea that maybe that might not be such a bad thing.

In that blog, author Jeff Fleck talked about his new book, Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, and posed the radical idea that maybe Arizona is more progressive and collaborative than we tend to think. Fleck has been studying and writing about water for a quarter of a century.

The report, “Arizona’s Water Future,” plumbs the detailed depths of rarely explored water contracts and compacts. It predicts severe shortages and sharp declines in Arizona’s water allocation, perhaps as soon as next year and for the foreseeable future. That could drastically slow the economy, harm the environment, and hurt farming.

“Arizona’s economy, quality of life, agriculture, and environment are on the line,” the Water Resource Advocates report said, adding, “The time is now for Arizonans to take steps to respond to falling Lake Mead water levels, and enter a new phase of long-term collaboration, innovative water management, water conservation and efficiency, and water reuse.”

Here’s why. Humans are draining Lake Mead faster than it fills.

Arizona, a latecomer to interstate water compacts, is last in line for Colorado River allocations.

What water does get here is already answered for, per complex legal agreements. There is a hierarchy to those users, too. Suburban development is last in line, followed by agriculture.

Lake Mead is now 34 percent full. We’ve all seen the bathtub ring stains on the shoreline cliffs as water levels drop to what is now the lowest level since the artificial lake initially filled up in the 1930s. If the waterline dips under the 1,075-feet-above-sea-level threshold, the government will cut Arizona’s share of water.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates a 50-50 chance of a shortage being declared for Lake Mead for 2018, rising to 56 percent by 2021.

“Unfortunately, the structural deficit and declining Lake Mead water levels will extend beyond this upcoming three-year period and likely well into the future,” the report said.

That would trigger cuts of 320,000 acre-feet to the Central Arizona Project, enough to wipe out water banking and supply for new suburban development. If the waterline falls another 50 feet, all allocations to central Arizona agriculture would be cut, because Arizona would be receiving about half the Colorado River water it’s been used to.

As Lake Mead water levels fall, Arizona water users face ever-deepening cuts to the supply.
As Lake Mead water levels fall, Arizona water users face ever-deepening cuts to the supply.
Western Resource Advocates

Whether you view the lake as half full or half empty depends on your outlook.

If that sounds like fanciful doom-and-gloom talk, like the sky, not the waterline, is falling, consider that Lake Mead has fallen more than 100 feet since the turn of the millennium.

The lake is half empty.

No wonder, then, the Legislature Friday sent a budget to Gov. Doug Ducey that included $2 million for drought contingency planning, should any of WRA’s predictions come true.

But there’s another way to look at it: The lake is half full.

About 40 percent of Arizona’s water comes from the river, about the same amount that comes from groundwater. It may be a dry heat, but it’s a wet desert.

Also, consider this. Even as Arizona’s population and economy grew rapidly, water use has not. In fact, we use less water today than in 1990, even as the population doubled and the economic output tripled.

Arizona, said author Fleck, has strong conservation instincts and we’ve barely got started.

“I don’t know where the limit is," Fleck said, pointing out major successes in Israel and California.

“Indoor conservation is going to keep happening partly because the technology keeps getting better. The toilets use less and less water. The showerheads use less and less water,” he noted.

“But outdoor conservation, that consumptive fraction on the garden, is really where the action is. You see this evolution, especially in a place like Albuquerque and water-stressed communities in Southern California,” he added. "There is a realization that we do live in a desert and we don’t need a Kentucky bluegrass lawn and tons of trees in our yard.”

Arizona uses the same amount of water as ever, even as the population has grown.
Arizona uses the same amount of water as ever, even as the population has grown.
Western Resource Advocates

The WRA report lays out seven steps that it said are necessary to sustain thriving farms, environmental habitats and economy.

“The final element for future success is to double down on what [Arizona, California, and Nevada] are already doing: focus on collaboration, negotiation, and arrive at decisions that benefit both current and future generations,” the report said.

It recommends that Arizona:

  • Adopt next-generation water conservation and efficiency.
  • Expand system conservation programs to stabilize Lake Mead levels.
  • Increase innovative water sharing arrangements.
  • Create an Arizona Water Bank Recovery Plan Stakeholder Committee.
  • Uphold the integrity of Indian water rights settlements.
  • Protect the state’s groundwater resources.
  • Protect Arizona’s wildlife and natural areas.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Enter Arizona politics.

This was the state that commissioned a navy in 1934 and put it out on the Colorado River to stop California building Parker Dam. That was the last time one U.S. state armed itself against another, WRA noted.

California-bashing is a time-honored pastime for Grand Canyon State pols.

“There’s just always this danger that when things get really bad, blaming California is a winning political strategy within the state,” Fleck told the WRA.

Remember, he titled his book Water is for Fighting Over. But he declared a change of heart during its writing.

“I think there has been a shift in Arizona’s behavior toward more collaboration with their neighbors and the development of a drought contingency plan. The state has moved away from the kind of confrontational style in dealing with the other basin states that I criticized in my book,” Fleck said.

What’s changed is a recognition of the problem and a need to team up to solve it, he suggested.

“Everybody recognizes that we have to come up with some alternative arrangements to spread shortages more equitably across user classes, rather than being trapped in the arbitrary allocations made 60 and 70 years ago,” Fleck said.

He sees the scope of the challenge, and even Arizona’s legislature, as a potentially good thing and a way forward to enacting a drought contingency plan.

"If you have to go through a bunch of legislators, you really have to have an agreement that doesn’t ram it down people’s throats or it’s going to fail. We’ll see,” Fleck said.

Lawmakers agreed to fund planning efforts.

“You need to have a discussion within Arizona so that everybody has some buy-in on the solution. It’s not going to succeed if [Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Thomas] Buschatzke just imposes it,” Fleck noted.

“Importantly, it’s really hard to do in a hurry. That’s one of the lessons of West Basin in California,” he added, “this kind of stuff takes a long time and so doing it in a hurry, as we’re trying to do with the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan, is much more difficult.”

Both Fleck and the report authors noted there have been successful collaborations in Arizona to protect the water supply and river habitats.

In October, Phoenix said it would take its full share of Colorado River water for the first time and bank 20 percent of it in Tucson’s groundwater, the report noted.

“This enables Phoenix to store the water that it does not need to deliver to customers that year and allows Tucson, which has ample underground water storage capabilities, to enhance its groundwater supplies," the report said.

Fleck noted the efforts to protect the Santa Cruz River.

“Arizona, for example, has a strong community set of values around the preservation of ecosystems and flows in the Santa Cruz River. The community has come forward and said, ‘We want that,’” he said.

“If the people of Central Arizona don’t really care about whether there is water flowing in the Salt River, the Gila River, or not, then you’ve got no starting point to enforce an environmental value. And so you’re left with litigating over the Endangered Species Act.”

He concluded the report’s plan is feasible.

If it’s not, WRA predicts, we face a grim future. The groundwater is drained dry. We pay higher electricity bills because Lake Mead can’t generate enough hydroelectric power. Less water goes to habitats, farms, and cities, “halting growth and harming our economy.”

Fun times.


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