Arizona Water Shortage A Challenge for Policy Makers

Lake_mead_july_2009

Arizona is in for a wild water-less ride as policy makers scramble to solve the ongoing west’s drought.

Last week, Lake Mead, which sits on the border of Nevada and Arizona, set a new record low—the first time since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s that the lake’s surface has dipped below 1,080 feet above sea level. The West’s drought is so bad that official plans for water rationing have now begun—with Arizona’s farmers first on the chopping block. Yes, despite the drought’s epicenter in California, it’s Arizona that will bear the brunt of the West’s epic dry spell.

The huge Lake Mead—which used to be the nation’s largest reservoir—serves as the main water storage facility on the Colorado River. Amid one of the worst droughts in millennia, record lows at Lake Mead are becoming an annual event—last year’s low was 7 feet higher than this year’s expected June nadir, 1,073 feet.

The latest forecasts give a 33 percent chance of an official shortage resulting in mandatory cuts. Arizona policymakers are talking about it but local media coverage has yet to focus on its incredible implications. Who will be affected? Practically everyone.

“A call on the river will be significant,” Joe Sigg, director of government relations for Arizona Farm Bureau, told the Arizona Daily Star. “It will be a complete change in a farmer’s business model.” A “call” refers to the mandatory cutbacks in water deliveries for certain low-priority users of the Colorado. Arizona law prioritizes cities, industry, and tribal interests above agriculture, so farmers will see the biggest cuts. And those who are lucky enough to keep their water will pay more for it.

According to Robert Glennon, a water policy expert at the University of Arizona, the current situation was inevitable. “It’s really no surprise that this day was coming, for the simple reason that the Colorado River is overallocated,” Glennon told me over the phone last week. Glennon explained that the original Colorado River compact of 1922, which governs how seven states and Mexico use the river, was negotiated during “the wettest 10-year period in the last 1,000 years.” That law portioned out about 25 percent more water than regularly flows, so even in “normal” years, big reservoirs like Lake Mead are in a long-term decline. “We’ve been saved from the disaster because Arizona and these other states were not using all their water,” Glennon said.

How will our legislators deal with the impending water shortage? We are likely to find out very soon as so goes California water crisis goes Arizona.

 

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