Extreme conditions now sparking drought contingency plan for first time

CAP said there will likely be rate hikes due to the cutbacks, but how much those could be, will be decided this summer.
Updated: Apr. 12, 2021 at 10:56 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -Extreme drought conditions throughout the West are lowering levels in the crucial water reservoir, Lake Mead.

Scars of long years of low precipitation are hard to go unnoticed at Lake Mead, and the hot, dry summers have been felt for the last several years in Arizona. 2020 was especially dry, with little monsoon.

Now, the West is in uncharted territory.

Lake Mead is projected to drop by several feet this year, from elevation 1,083 to about 1,068, according to officials with the Central Arizona Project. The lake is hovering around 39 percent of its full capacity.

“Lake Mead is not in the best of health, and it hasn’t been for some time,” Sharon Megdal, with the Water Resources Research Center, UArizona.

The projected drop this year is significant enough to likely trigger the first tier in the Drought Contingency Plan—for the first time.

The plan, signed by western states and Mexico, targets agricultural users, primarily in Pinal County in Tier 1 of the cutbacks. About 30 percent of the CAP’s water won’t flow to AG users anymore. Instead, they will have to use groundwater that’s been replenishing since the 90s and count on stores other municipalities have made. The cutbacks will likely start in 2022.

“It’s a significant reduction, however, we’ve known this day was looming and have developed a number of innovative, cooperative agreements,” said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River Programs Manager, CAP.

Cities like Tucson have stored CAP water and will help supplement the cutbacks for agricultural users.

“This additional groundwater pumping is probably not sustainable for 50 or 100 years,” said Cullom.

However, Cullom said in the long run, Arizona has enough water to sustain for many years. The groundwater supply has been partially offset by agricultural users drawing from CAP water instead of groundwater for decades. Cities and tribes won’t really be impacted until later tiers in the plan like 2b and 3, when Arizona would have to cut back CAP water by more than 400,000 acre-feet.

Arizona could move into the next tier as soon as 2023, but authorities said Tucson is well prepared with a higher amount of water contracted through CAP than the city uses. Plus, people are using less water. The City of Tucson, on a per capita basis, has dropped water usage from 177 gallons a day in 2005, to 125 gallons a day, according to Megdal.

“We’d still be okay because we are not using as much of that water that we are entitled to,” she said,

CAP said there will likely be rate hikes due to the cutbacks, but how much those could be, will be decided this summer.

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