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Water officials share bleak outlook for CAP water supply | Subscriber

A year ago, when discussing an impending first mandatory reduction in deliveries from the Central Arizona project, CAP and state water officials stressed that they amounted to “planned pain,” having been in preparation as part of a 2019 drought plan.

While acknowledging that the then already expected 2022 shortage would cause hardship, particularly in Pinal County, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said that does not show that the plan drought emergency that required them was a failure.

“The DCP was not meant to eliminate the risk of shortages at all. A shortage does not reflect the failure of the DCP. It’s a success,” Buschatzke said, using a common abbreviation for the drought plan.

Last Friday, the official mood was much darker at the latest state-CAP briefing on shortages, held at the CAP office in Phoenix. Buschatzke and CAP chief executive Ted Cooke have made it clear they expect more serious shortages than this year as early as next year. And greater reductions would likely come in years to come. They spoke repeatedly about the need for cities in Arizona to start making plans to use less water, due to reductions in outdoor irrigation.

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But Cooke added: “We don’t need to panic. There is no imminent threat to tap water.”

A federal official, Dan Bunk of the US Bureau of Reclamation, said at the briefing that it is possible that as early as 2024 the lower basin will experience its most severe shortage predicted by the 2019 drought plan – one that would be for the first time cut off CAP Deliveries in Tucson.

A big difference between now and a year ago is that conditions on the river and in its large reservoirs are continuing to deteriorate faster than federal forecasters predicted at the time. Lake Mead’s water level has dropped 22 feet to around 1,053 feet since April 2021, nearly 12 feet lower than forecasters predicted a year ago. Lake Powell dropped 40ft to about 3,522ft over the same period, nearly 20ft lower than predicted a year ago.

Last Tuesday, the Interior Department announced it would withhold 480,000 acre feet of water – nearly five years of Tucson’s drinking water demand – in Powell this year that it had previously planned to release in Mead. Mead, on the Nevada border, stores water for CAP deliveries.

Essential conservation

This reduction will not result in immediate reductions in water deliveries to Arizona and other lower basin users due to an agreement between the states and the federal government to make the impact “operationally neutral.” But it has caused many water users to fear more serious consequences if it happens again in the coming years.

Without that reduction, Powell could have fallen next year or possibly even late 2022 to below 3,490 feet, and stayed there all next year if another dry year occurs, the Bunk office hydrologist said. during Friday’s briefing. This is the minimum elevation required for the adjacent Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity for five million customers, mostly rural customers in Arizona and five other western states.

Without specifying what cuts local governments should make now, Buschatzke and Cook said further conservation was essential to keep Arizona from following in California’s footsteps. In March, State Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that will drive mandatory reductions of up to 20% in many cities across the state this summer. Last month, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District ordered about 6 million residents to limit outdoor watering to one day a week. The cuts follow a dramatic reduction in deliveries this year through the State Water Project canal system from northern California to the Los Angeles area.

Residents of the worst-hit areas of Southern California will have to live on 50 gallons per person per day, Arizona officials said. That compares to the 119 gallons per person per day that Tucson Water reported to the ADWR that its 743,000 customers consumed in 2020.

“We don’t want to live on unhealthy allowances in our state. We may be in this place in the future, but we will do everything we can to avoid this outcome,” Buschatzke said.

Bunk told the briefing that while winter snowpack conditions in the upper basin were about 90% of normal levels in 2021 and 2022, spring-summer 2021 runoff in Powell was only 32% of average levels. This year’s latest projection, for 59% of average runoff, was announced last week by the federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

“We seem to be getting some precipitation, but warmer temperatures, dry ground conditions and increased evapotranspiration seem to be conspiring against us to some degree,” Bunk said.

A letter to the seven river basin states last Tuesday from Deputy Interior Secretary Tanya Trujillo announcing the reduction of Powell’s release is in line with what the states had previously requested, Buschatzke said, adding, “It’s absolutely necessary for all the reasons already discussed”.

In its most recent forecast last month, the bureau predicted that Mead will drop below 1,050 feet in elevation by the end of 2022. If that prediction holds true, Arizona would lose 80,000 more acres of land. due to shortages in addition to the 512,000 that have been cut this year. .

CAP’s Cooke said there was a chance Mead would drop below 1,045 feet by the end of 2022, cutting another 48,000 acres from Arizona’s river supply, though he said that was unlikely. At less than 1,045, California is also expected to take cuts – its first under the 2019 drought emergency plan.

They also spoke bluntly about the possibility of Mead falling below 1,025 feet in the coming years, a level once considered unthinkable. At this point, Arizona would reach its maximum predicted shortage level, called Level 3, cutting 720,000 acre feet per year from its CAP supplies.

“This is our future”

Under Tier 3, Phoenix-area cities and tribes would lose some of their highest-priority supplies for the first time, and Tucson would lose about 14% of its annual share of the 144,000 acre-feet-per-year CAP. . Additionally, once such a shortage is declared, state officials and the Office of the Secretary of the Interior will consult on increasing shortage levels “to protect Lake Mead,” Buschatzke said.

“Again, that’s part of the uncertainty we face. The gravity of the immediate situation is grave,” Buschatzke said.

He and Cooke noted that in the early years of CAP shortages, water users will get mitigation, either in water stored underground years ago to prepare for such events, either money. Eventually the extra water and money will disappear, they said.

A Tier 3 shortage declaration for 2024, while possible, is less likely for the lower basin to remain at Tier 2, Bunk said.

At one point in the briefing, a representative from the Tohono O’Odham Tribe asked, “How do we ensure that future declarations of shortages do not affect tribal water supplies?”

Buschatzke replied: “There is no guarantee of water supply. If we cannot solve the problems of getting water through the dams, we can get to the point where the highest priority rights are affected. .

“Not receiving 480,000 acre feet is a big step, to avoid the likelihood that the highest priority users will be cut to the bone,” he added.

Buschatzke and Cooke also highlighted Arizona’s conservation successes. The state has saved 812,000 acre feet per year through various programs, including the 2019 drought plan and a more recent plan to save at least 500,000 acre feet per year across the entire lower basin in 2022 and 2023.

“We’re conserving a quarter of the state’s total Colorado River water allocation,” Buschatzke said. “It’s our future.”

To address poor river conditions, Buschatze says, under the Groundwater Management Act 1980, management plans issued by the ADWR could be tightened to set out more general conservation requirements for urban areas such than Tucson and Phoenix. A fifth of those management plans are now on hold in various water management areas, including Tucson, but Buschatzke said he sees no need to toughen them up now.

“Current draft management plans were certainly developed with full knowledge of the challenges facing the Colorado River,” he said. “These plans achieve the legal goal of reducing groundwater use. These plans are strong. They do what is legally required.”

Looking further ahead, the director said Arizona and other states in the basin plan in the future to set a long-term goal for what they expect from total annual river flows — well below the few 14 million acres of feet per year. The Colorado River basins now use.

He noted that the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s board recently passed a plan to assume the river carries 11 million acre-feet. This is about 1.2 million less than has been transported on average annually since 2000, and about 4 million less than during the 20th century.

Speaking at a Colorado River lecture in March at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he told the assembly, “I won’t say I agree with 11 million, because I’m well aware that I could be arrested when I get off the plane at Phoenix.” He did not mention his views on the matter during Friday’s briefing, and ADWR public information officers did not respond to a question from The Star about whether the continued worsening of conditions of the river had made him change his mind.

“I don’t see us giving away our 2.8 million acre allocation permanently, or any state doing it,” Buschatzke said during the briefing. “If we get more, we find ways to use it. If we get less, we have…additional shortages.”

Contact Tony Davis at 520-349-0350 or tdavis@tucson.com. Follow Davis on Twitter @tonydavis987.