Arizona Cities Look Proactively in Dealing With Drought, Dipping River Level

By William H. Carlile  

June 24 — As the drought in the West and overuse of Colorado River water continue, officials of Arizona's two largest cities are launching a new strategy aimed at countering the anticipated impacts of drought and long-term climate change.

Instead of working separately to secure water, Phoenix and Tucson say they are working collaboratively.

The first such effort to go online is expected in early 2015, when a partnership with Tucson water providers will enable storage and recovery of Central Arizona Project (CAP) water between the two cities. The CAP, created in 1968, is a 336-mile-long system of canals and pumping stations that diverts water from the Colorado River on Arizona's western border with California.

The storage-and-recovery partnership with Tucson is the first of its kind and will enable some of Phoenix's excess CAP water to be stored in Tucson storage facilities. In the event of a future drought, Phoenix will be able to access its stored water. Likewise, Tucson will store some of its excess CAP water upstream and recover from there.

Kathryn Sorensen, director of Phoenix's water services department, described the effort as proactive approach by the city governments.

“Being a desert city, we are very well aware of our vulnerabilities regarding the Colorado River,” she said. “But that is why we are so proactive regarding our planning, so that we can continue to deliver water reliably to businesses, families and industries here.’’

Meanwhile, Alan Forrest, Tucson's water director, also touted its benefits.

“It's a great concept,” he said. “It has real benefits for us in Tucson, even more so for others in the state, specifically the Phoenix area. It's a great cooperative arrangement.’’

14th Season of Drought

The moves come as the West endures its 14th season of drought. Later this summer, the Bureau of Reclamation is expected to forecast that Lake Mead will dip to a level not seen since the lake was first filled in 1938.

On April 22, the Phoenix City Council unanimously approved the water storage arrangement as one of three key initiatives brought forward by Mayor Greg Stanton.

The two other initiatives involve ongoing discussions with other river water stakeholders about water shortages on the Colorado River and plans to encourage review of the state's groundwater laws.

Sorensen clarified that the $4 billion CAP, the largest and most expensive aqueduct system ever built in the U.S., is not anticipating cutbacks in water deliveries to either Phoenix or Tucson.

Phoenix's Multi-Pronged Approach

The city of Phoenix, she said, is looking to invest in so-called “insurance policies’’ that enhance its water redundancy and resiliency. This is being done, in part, through Phoenix's participation in conversations about the Colorado River with the state's Colorado River Advisory Committee, she said. There, agricultural, municipal and tribal stakeholders are discussing potential strategies for addressing the possibility of Colorado River shortages.

Phoenix is also advocating a program called the Colorado River System Conservation program. The largest agencies that receive water from the Colorado are gearing up to pilot the program, which is an innovative conservation scheme that pays farmers, industries and municipalities to reduce use of the river's water.

The program's main aim is to keep the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the giant reservoirs behind Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, respectively, high enough to delay or avoid the declaration of a water shortage. If that were to occur, it would trigger potentially costly reductions in water deliveries.

The program is seeded by $11 million from the federal government and from agencies responsible for water in metropolitan Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Southern California.

“That's the idea behind the program,” Sorensen said. “It's pretty innovative. The idea is that we all work collaboratively together to enhance the resiliency of the Colorado River rather than individually pursuing our own efforts.’’

To contact the reporter on this story: William H. Carlile in Phoenix at wcarlile@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com