Arizona’s dry future begins as Colorado River narrows

PHOENIX—Arizona is the first state to suffer severe cuts caused by a drought-fueled decline in the Colorado River, one of the most important water sources in the American Southwest.

Farmers in this fast-growing state are losing most of the water they get from Colorado this year, and many are leaving large amounts of land unplanted, with further cuts slated for next year. If the decrease in water flows in the river does not reverse, cities in Arizona and other states could be affected next, officials say.

“All projections are that flow will continue to decline due to global warming,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The challenge will be how you analyze these limited resources from a long-term perspective.”

The Colorado River, 1,450 miles long, provides drinking water to 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland. Last year, the United States Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever shortage in Colorado after the level of Nevada’s Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, shot below 1,075 feet. On Thursday, the reservoir was at 1,057 feet. In 2000, it was 1,214 feet. Lake Mead is considered full at 1,229 feet.

Farms in Pinal County, Arizona, near Phoenix, draw a lot of water from the Colorado River; an irrigated potato field in Queen Creek, Arizona.

The so-called Tier 1 shortage has triggered a reduction of 512,000 acre-feet, or 18%, of Arizona’s share of Colorado River water, or about a quarter of what metropolitan Phoenix uses each year. The cuts are determined through agreements between the US government and seven states that use the river, as well as Mexico.

The cuts are being implemented this year, primarily in Arizona’s agriculture industry, which generates an estimated $23 billion in economic impact annually and is a major producer of cotton, lettuce and livestock. Pinal County, an area south of Phoenix that draws the most from the Colorado River in the state, is losing about 75% of that water in 2022 and all of it next year, according to the Arizona Farm Bureau.


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“It’s a huge reduction in one of Arizona’s most critical resources, and it’s a reduction with no sweet place to land,” agricultural bureau spokeswoman Chelsea McGuire said. She said about half of Pinal County’s farmland will go unplanted this year. Deeper reductions are expected across the state if the drought continues. Arizona farmers plan to step up their conservation efforts even further and plant more drought-tolerant crops.

Dan Thelander, who grows 6,000 acres of crops on his family farm in Pinal County including alfalfa, corn and wheat, said he will leave 3,200 acres unplanted this year due to the cuts. water. To compensate, the farm plans to reduce equipment purchases and may lay off about half of its 14-person staff. “I feel like we have all the other issues that all farmers have, and on top of that we have dramatic water cuts,” Mr Thelander said.

The West has been plagued by record drought for most of the past two decades, attributed in large part to global warming, researchers say.

If Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet — which officials say is likely to happen within the next few years — it would trigger a Tier 2 shortage in which Arizona’s overall reduction would drop from 18% to 21%. and cities would be significantly affected. Nevada and Mexico’s allocations from the Colorado River, which are already beginning to be reduced, will also decline further.

A Level 3 shortage, if Lake Mead drops below 1,025 feet, would trigger more cuts in those states and a 7% cut would be imposed in California, where farmers have already lost water from a tied system to the upstate mountains.

Arizona’s urban centers are already preparing for future reductions and say they believe they can handle continued population growth. Arizona has grown from 5.1 million in 2000 to 7.2 million in 2020, according to the Census Bureau, and Phoenix has been the nation’s fastest-growing major city over the past decade.

Scottsdale, Arizona filters sewage to make it potable and puts some back into the ground for storage.


Eliza Collins/The Wall Street Journal

Scottsdale, Phoenix, and other cities diversified their water sources beyond the Colorado River, and each replenished groundwater supplies. Scottsdale added three years of water to about 15 years of supply already underground. Phoenix added two years’ worth on top of an existing supply that would last about 13 years, city officials said.

“We’ve been anticipating this type of event for many years,” said Cynthia Campbell, Phoenix water resource management consultant. She said residents have also increased conservation. Currently, 10% of construction sites are lawns, compared to 70% in the 1970s.

Scottsdale filters sewage to make it potable and puts some back into the ground for storage. It also waters golf courses, one of the city’s economic engines that fuel tourism, with reclaimed water.

Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated community of about 2,000 homes north of Scottsdale, has long depended on water transported from Scottsdale by trucking companies.

But following recent reductions in the Colorado River, Scottsdale officials said they will stop shipping water to nonresidents next year. The plan for what comes next has torn the community apart.

Some residents of the Rio Verde foothills are calling for the formation of a local government council that could secure water rights. They say having a community-run council would ensure lower prices and a stable water supply. Other community members who have wells do not want a government entity and are urging neighbors to work with a private water company instead. They say they prepared for the current situation by digging wells on their property, and some said they moved to an unincorporated area specifically to avoid dealing with the local government.

“We have this group of people…who want to change everything here for those of us who were smart and invested and did what we needed to live in the desert,” said Christy Jackman, who owns two well.

Thomas Galvin, a Maricopa County supervisor, said the board will provide a plan in the coming months. Rio Verde Foothills residents Linda and Mark Vinson think creating a water district is their best bet. Still, they are worried about what might happen if the water stops flowing.

The couple have already designed their home to save water hauled from Scottsdale – it has a washer that uses a fraction of the water like normal machines. Now they say they are talking about what they would do if water deliveries stopped altogether, including installing compost toilets and showering at the gym.

A view of Mark and Linda Vinson’s house; the couple supports the idea of ​​creating a water district in their community.

Write to Jim Carlton at and Eliza Collins at

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