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Tucson votes to give up some of its CAP water to help save Lake Mead

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 7:54 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The Tucson City Council voted unanimously to give back about a third of its Central Arizona Project water allocation to help an ailing Lake Mead.

The lake, hit hard by a prolonged drought, is at 31% capacity and dropping. It provides water for 20 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada as well as large swaths of farmland.

“I feel that the city of Tucson is in a position where we can add water back to the lake, specifically Lake Mead,” said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero before the vote.

Tucson receives about 144,000 acre feet of water from the lake annually but uses only about 100,000. For years, the city has been storing the surplus underground and has more than seven years of CAP water banked.

So it feels it can help the lake retain some of its health.

“I feel it is our moral obligation as a Mayor and council, as a city, that has prepared for this day to come,” Romero said. “So we have a very special place in this particular situation.”

What the city of Tucson is proposing to do is similar to a program which went into effect this year called 500+. Several Indian tribes and local jurisdictions, including Phoenix and Las Vegas, have not taken their full allocations of CAP water, leaving it in Lake Mead. They will leave 500,000 acre feet in the lake every year through 2026 raising the level by 16 feet.

Tucson Water declined to participate in part because CAP said it had enough to fulfill the needs of the program and Tucson was notified at a late date, not giving it enough time to make an informed decision. The city told CAP it would participate if needed. Phoenix is being paid for setting aside part of its allotment. It isn’t known if Tucson will get paid as well.

“The important part is that we are all at the table right now trying to figure out how to avoid tanking Mead,” said Ward 6 City Commissioner Steve Kozachik.

The City of Phoenix Water Resources Management Advisor Cynthia Campbell told us:

“Phoenix is already participating in the 500+ Plan. Tucson and Phoenix have a long-standing history of partnership in water management, including collaborative work in the creation of system conservation water to benefit the Colorado River system. In the event Tucson wishes to take further action, Phoenix will consider how it can partner with Tucson to benefit the Colorado River system.”

Tucson met behind closed doors to discuss the matter this afternoon because it’s decision contained legal issues which can’t be made public at this time but the legal considerations are “all towards agreements that are designed to help forestall shortages on the river and maintain levels in Lake Mead” according to City Attorney Mike Rankin.

Tucson has long been a leader in water conservation in Arizona cutting its water use to less than 80 gallons a day per capita, far below the state average. Still, it appears city water users will likely have to do more.

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen on the river nobody can,” said Sharon Megdal, the Director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. “But I will predict yes,.. there will be some local impact and pain, I couldn’t say otherwise.”

Just how deep that pain will be will be determined by Mother Nature and how the communities respond to what will be, if not now, a water crisis.

“But I do believe communities will come together and adapt,” Megdal said.

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