Reservoir levels on the Colorado River are falling faster than even the pessimists predicted, casting a long shadow over Arizona’s water supply.

The steadily warming climate almost certainly is playing a role in the worst recorded drought on a watershed on which seven states and 40 million people depend, according to a just-released report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fortunately, Rim Country and the White Mountains remain among the few areas in Arizona with ample local water supplies — even if the drought persists. Wet monsoons and runoff patterns on the Salt and Verde river watersheds have eased the water shortage here.

The weather seemed to underscore the Rim Country and White Mountains advantages this week, with scattered thunderstorms on top of a monsoon that in many areas produced double the normal runoff.

However, the rapidly dropping water level in Lake Mead and Lake Powell will cause a water crisis in much of the rest of the state. Arizona took an 18% hit on its Colorado Water deliveries this year and will likely face a 30% shortfall next year.

Moreover, water levels on Lake Powell will likely fall below the intakes for the hydroelectric generators in the face of the dam in the next two years, leading to higher prices for electricity on the Navajo Nation and elsewhere. The reservations are already facing a desperate shortage of water, with many families already relying on expensive water hauling for even basic needs. Many reservation power users are also facing a 14% increase in rates due to lower water levels in Powell, with bigger increases likely in the future.

Water managers across the state said the latest projections from the US Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA suggest the state must do much more to conserve water and develop new water infrastructure.

Arizona’s senior U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema said the projections underscore the need for fast action on a massive infrastructure bill, now stuck in Congress.

“The announcement from the Bureau of Reclamation on the 5-year projections for Lakes Mead and Powell underscores the need for swift passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which would invest $8.3 billion in western water infrastructure. The Senate must also work swiftly to confirm the next Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation to ensure active leadership to address the crisis. I look forward to working with federal, state, and local officials to identify and implement strong responses to this unprecedented situation to secure Arizona’s water future.”

The money for nearly $1 trillion in infrastructure programs nationally would fund water development and conservation programs throughout the west. It would also create or conserve 100,000 acre feet of water yearly at Lake Mead.

The US Senate has already passed that bill. However, it’s stuck in Congress. Some Congressional Democrats said they won’t vote for the bill until after there’s a vote on a much larger infrastructure bill. That larger infrastructure bill would include $3.5 billion worth of social safety net and infrastructure programs over the next 10 years — with about two thirds of the cost offset by tax increases or offsetting saving. That bill faces the near-unanimous opposition of Republicans and some moderate Democrats.

Water levels in the Colorado River Reservoirs have fallen faster than expected, the result of a dry winter and spring in the Rocky Mountains.

The Bureau of Reclamation released its five-year forecast of river flows, with a small chance Lake Powell level will drop below the hydropower generators intake this year and a one in four chance next year. Lake Mead’s in only slightly better shape, with a 66% chance Arizona will lose most of its share of water by 2025.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said the study shows the need for action to “enhance our efforts to protect Lake Mead, Lake Powell and the Colorado River system overall.”

Unfortunately, we’d better get used to long, devastating droughts, according to the latest NOAA projections.

The southwest recorded the driest 20-month period on record between January of 2020 and August of 2021, before the monsoon brought some relief. That period also marked the third highest average temperatures on record.

The drought has inflicted billions of dollars in economic damage as well as fueling two catastrophic fire seasons. Millions of acres have burned, thousands of homes have been destroyed and the federal government has spent $3-$4 billion to fight the record-breaking blazes.

The southwest has long suffered from periodic drought. Research suggests that a decades-long dry period contributed to the collapse of centuries old civilizations here in the 1300s.

However, the rising temperatures have supercharged drought in the southwest.

High temperatures dry out soils, force early runoff, reduce snowfall, increase demand by plants and also increase water demand by humans. In Arizona, agriculture accounts for 74% of water use.

The six southwestern states with a population of 60 million people have borne the brunt of the drought, but the damage is much more widespread.

“Half of the United States is in an unprecedented drought, precisely as the country’s economy is struggling to emerge from the effects of COVID,” said lead author and Dartmouth College Geography professor Justin Mankin.

Current projections suggest that Arizona could face yet another dry winter. “This suggests that for much of the U.S. Southwest, the present drought will last at least into 2022, potentially longer,” said the report.

Fortunately, Lake Roosevelt remains 69% full. The reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers are 71% full. That compares to 82% full at the same time a year ago.

On Friday, the Salt River was flowing at 68% of normal and the Verde River at 72% of normal, thanks to a final flush of monsoon rainfall.

The C.C. Cragin Reservoir remained at 31% full, thanks mostly to the Salt River Project’s decision not to pump water out of the reservoir due to a desperately dry winter. The reservoir normally supplies Payson with about 3,500 acre-feet annually and SRP with about 11,000 acre-feet.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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