The Arizona water shortage 2021 is just the beginning of an ongoing crisis in the region, as climate change-induced droughts and heatwaves have driven water levels at Lake Mead and the Colorado River to plummet. Arizonans are now restricted on how much water they could use and the situation will not likely abate anytime soon. Who are impacted most by the water shortage and what are the policy solutions being implemented and considered?
Due to its dry desert climate, Arizona is home to some of the world’s most stunning and unique landscapes, from the Red Rock State Park and the iconic Grand Canyon. It is also where the all-important Hoover Dam is located – bordering with Nevada – where it helps control floods, provide irrigation water as well as generate hydroelectric power. But as the climate crisis continues to intensify, Arizona has been embattled with a myriad of issues, chief among them being the increasing threat of water shortage and scarcity.
Temperatures in Arizona have been steadily rising with average summer temperatures now 1.8F (1C) higher compared to 1970 levels. Over the same period, the state has recorded 6.2 more days that are above 110F (43C), which translates to significantly more ‘danger days’ where residents are more likely to succumb to heat-related health issues and deaths.
Hotter days and climates increase evaporation rates as a result, leading to water bodies and sources becoming more stressed, and threatening availability. There’s no clearer example of this phenomenon than what is currently happening at the Colorado River and its two reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are the primary water supply for Arizona’s 7 million residents.
Water levels on Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US, is currently experiencing historic low-water levels, caused by the ongoing 20-year-long megadrought in the US West, as well as reduced snowpack in the Rocky Mountains – where it usually provides a steady supply of water as it melts. Lake Powell upstream on the Colorado River is similarly experiencing water dropping to its lowest level since it was filled in the 1960s.
These record lows prompted the first-ever Tier 1 Water Shortage declaration for the reservoirs, which has been in effect since early 2022, requiring water users including states like Nevada as well as Mexico to conserve and reduce their water consumption. But Arizona was hit hardest by the declaration with nearly one fifth of the state’s water supply being cut off. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), 41% of the state’s current water supply comes from groundwater, 36% from Colorado River, 18% from in-state rivers, and 5% from reclaimed water.
But experts predict that water levels in Lake Mead will not likely recover soon amid current global warming projections and aridity. Indeed, if the reservoir drops below 895 feet, it is considered a “dead pool” condition, which will jeopardise the Hoover Dam’s ability to provide electricity – leaving nearly 1.3 million people in Arizona, California, and Nevada without power. As of May 2022, Lake Mead water levels are at 1,049 feet and declining.
So what does this mean for the people of Arizona? Based on 2017 statistics, the total statewide water use was approximately 7 million acre-feet, in which 72% was used for agricultural purposes, 22% for municipal use while the remaining 6% was used for industries. Farmers therefore will be impacted first (and most) by the ongoing water shortage declaration, forcing them to take conservation measures including fallowing land – where a portion of cropland cannot be planted for an entire season. Municipal water users are currently spared from the shortage but this could quickly change as water levels will likely continue to plummet in the next few years.
But water shortage in Arizona is also pitting small towns against fast-growing metropolitan communities. According to Kathleen Ferris, a senior research fellow with the Kyl Center for Water Policy in Arizona, water scarcity in the state has resulted in the “haves” and the “have nots,” and described the coming water competition could potentially be like the Wild West.
It’s clear the state needs to do more beyond the water restriction from the declaration. It is worth noting that despite a population increase of six million residents since 1957, Arizona has been using about the same amount of water now as they did then. While unchanged water usage rates can mostly be attributed to the economy’s transition from one that is based largely on agriculture to urban, decades of conservation efforts including the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980 and year-long mandatory water conservation measures have certainly helped. Apparently, the state has also “stored nearly 3 trillion gallons of water for future use or ‘non-rainy days”, which is equivalent to serving the city of Phoenix for 30 years, according to the ADWR.
But these measures will not be enough to combat water scarcity as the Colorado River continues to deplete. Considering Arizona relies more than 40% of water supplies from groundwater, lawmakers need to address the unregulated drainage of rural groundwater by industrial farms. Beyond that, there needs to be an overhaul of sustainable farming practices in the industry as well– the state is the leading producers of cotton, lettuce and hay with cattle and dairy being the top agricultural products.
Arizona also needs to rapidly invest and diversify its water sources. In his State of the State address, Governor Doug Ducey plans to provide the Arizona Water Authority with a $1 billion budget to find new sources of water over the next three years and to partner with other states on desalination plants. If a plant is built in Mexico, states who invest in it could take part of Mexico’s share of the river in return.
For alternative water sources, there has been discussions of pumping floodwaters from the Mississippi River basin to either Colorado’s Front Range or to New Mexico’s Rio Grande. From the latter, water could then be pumped to the Gila River’s headwaters and flow to Phoenix in Arizona. This could potentially move 600,000 acre-feet of water, offsetting the projected loss from the Colorado River. But to build such a pipe would cost USD$8.6 billion, and potentially raise water prices from less than $200 for an acre-foot to $1,700. Arizona should also consider restricting municipal water consumption, such as outdoor watering and irrigation, akin to measures implemented in Las Vegas, as well as ways to increase the share of recycled and reclaimed water.
There’s no silver bullet in tackling the water shortage situation in Arizona, but until the US and the world manages to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change – and therefore drought conditions – the state cannot rely on the same water supplies and keep business as usual.