Tucson Water is Prepared for Colorado River Shortages

Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure

A Letter from Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure - January 2019

Dear Tucson Water Customers,

There has been a lot in the news lately about a shortage on the Colorado River: when it will happen, what it means for Tucson, and what the state is doing to prepare for it. It’s important to know that Tucson is uniquely situated to manage Colorado River shortages now and in the future because of our community’s long-standing investments in proactive planning, conservation, and water supply diversification.

I have been actively representing our community in statewide negotiations on how we manage the river, and want to give you an update so you know what is happening with this key part of our city’s water supply.

What is a shortage?
The surface elevation of Lake Mead is the main indicator of how much water is in the lower Colorado River, which is shared by Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the entire Colorado River system, monitors and forecasts the elevation of the lake, and, based on that information, can declare the need to reduce the amount of water available to users (industry, farms, cities, and Native American tribes). This is called a declaration of shortage.

There are different tiers of shortage based on how low the lake gets. River users take cuts to their share of water based on the different tiers and the users’ priority level. Cities and tribes have the highest priority for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and would be the last to see cuts during shortage.

When could it happen?
Federal officials predict there is a 57 percent chance that in January 2020, water levels at Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet (above sea level), triggering a Tier 1 shortage. The chances increase every year after that, as do chances that the lake will fall even lower, triggering higher-tier shortages (Tier 2 at 1,050 feet and Tier 3 at 1,025 feet). Tucson would not take any cuts under any of these stages, thanks to our priority status and our access to water stored by the Arizona Water Banking Authority.

What is the City of Tucson doing about it?
Tucson has worked with other Colorado River water users and state officials to negotiate an agreement called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). The point of the DCP is for Arizona users to voluntarily keep water in Lake Mead to prevent or delay shortages on the river, but especially to keep Lake Mead above 1,020 feet – a critical level below Tier 3 at which all Arizona users would face significant cuts.

On December 4, the City of Tucson Mayor and Council voted to support the DCP for the following reasons:

Tucson Water recharge basins

  • It’s a carefully crafted compromise that balances the needs of industry, farms, cities, tribes, and the environment.
  • Tucson’s share of Colorado River water is fully protected under the proposed Arizona plan through at least 2026.
  • It does not pass any new costs onto the City or our customers.
  • It honors principles that are important to Tucson: preserving cities’ priority status, keeping as much water in Lake Mead as possible, and protecting Arizona’s economy.

What can you do about it?
The DCP agreement is now in the hands of the Arizona State Legislature. The Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has given all states a deadline of January 31, 2019, to adopt the DCP or the federal government will step in to protect the river. We hope you’ll join us in contacting your legislators exiting Tucson Water website with your own position about how to best secure Arizona’s future water supplies.

Regardless of the DCP, Tucson Water is ready to weather shortages on the Colorado River. Our Colorado River water rights meet about 150 percent of our customers’ current demands. This allows us to store excess water in the ground for future shortages, and gives us a buffer if we see cuts in the future. In addition, our actions to conserve water and diversify our water supplies (such as recycled water and rainwater) help us to remain flexible and secure in the face of shortages on the river.

In the coming months, we’ll share more information about shortage, drought, what the City is doing, and what you can do to help ensure a secure water future for Tucson. For more detailed information, visit https://www.tucsonaz.gov/water/drought

To read the complete January Water Matters newsletter, click here pdf.