Paul's Note - December 7, 2018

There have been two recent environmental stories covered in our local news. Both have major implications, but they also will have a particular effect on you as a water-user in Tucson.

The first ran this Sunday about negotiations between stakeholders, including farmers, cities and tribes, to develop the Central Arizona Project’s drought contingency plan. Keep in mind that close to 90% of the water that the City of Tucson serves to its customers comes from the Colorado River through the Central Arizona Project.

The current plan would compensate farmers to be taken off of CAP and resume pumping groundwater. Some of you that know the history of the CAP are sensing some irony. However, this contingency plan is being made to keep users like the City of Tucson from seeing their allocation cut later.

The CAP had been pushed forward for decades as a way to get farmers, chiefly in Pinal County, off of well water and using Colorado River water. It was signed into law in 1968, and by the time the final bit of concrete had been poured on the 300-mile-long canal in 1993, $4.7 billion had been spent on it. That’s a bit more than $8.2 billion in today’s money.

The goal of taking farmers off groundwater was largely achieved in the early 1980s when the first CAP water was delivered to Pinal County. This was good for the local aquifer and for other users that depended on groundwater.

Circumstances have changed. Plans are still being negotiated and finalized, but it currently looks like it will cost $100 million to move farmers back to drilling for groundwater.

As of today, the level in Lake Mead, which is used to determine shortages for the CAP, is at 1,078 ft. Only barely above that 1,075 ft. level and 150 ft. short of full.

A drop below the 1075 ft. level at Lake Mead means a “tier one” shortage. Under CAP agreements, this would be a cut to the allocation to farmers. Since many of these operations haven’t been on groundwater in well over thirty years, the cost to mitigate this loss and put them back on wells becomes considerable. The Governor will be asking for $30 million in state money, while CAP is going to kick in $60 million. There is a hope that the remainder of the money will come from either the federal government or private grants. In any case, the lion’s share of this money will come from you, either in the form of taxes or fees on your water bill.

Our own water director, Tim Thomure, is in support of the plan. The goal is that this will keep us from more severe shortages which would affect Tucson’s allocation, and even might result in a federal takeover of CAP management that could have severe consequences for us at the end of the canal. Even though we have been able to get CAP water to you surprisingly cheaply (much of what we pay for CAP is power costs; CAP is the largest user of power, mostly from coal, in the state), we will likely be paying a more for water in the future so that we can avoid shortages and the even higher price increases that come from that.


What’s making this such a big issue now is the Rocky Mountain snowpack that melts every year and eventually ends up in the recharge basins southwest of town hasn’t been as big as in past years. The Denver Post reports that it is down to 2/3 of normal.

This is another symptom of climate change. More hot days also means more evaporation on both the CAP canal and the rivers that feed it.

A member of my staff attended a discussion featuring University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Diana Liverman put on by the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. The topic was a report put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Among ideas discussed was a call for fees on fossil fuels and a roll back of laws that encourage companies to move to places where they can emit more carbon. It sounds radical, but there are so many signs out there that action is needed right away, particularly because of the impacts here in the Sonoran Desert.

The National Climate Assessment, quietly released by the White House last Friday, has an entire chapter on the special impacts of climate change on our part of the country. The Assessment highlights a report from Arizona State University that projects that there could be as many as 150 days a year over 100 degrees in Phoenix by the end of the century, compared to a bit more than 80 over the last thirty years.  Even before that happens, rising temperatures will have consequences for everything from more emergency room visits to increased wildfires to trouble with power supplies.

The Climate Assessment, highly detailed and nearly 1500 pages long, is available online. The Star ran an article on local consequences on Sunday.