Water Practices and Issues in Arizona: An Introduction

[This is the first in a series of blogs about water policy and issues in southern Arizona written by our Water Policy Intern, Marisa Tackett.)


The PCFA is a developing, grassroots food policy group with the intention of influencing local agencies to support policies and activities that positively affect the local food movement. Part of that entails educating ourselves and our members on pertinent issues surrounding the growing of food.

A key part of growing food is water, and Arizona has an extensive political history on the issue, which dates back even before statehood.  In the ensuing years, the state of Arizona has developed complex water laws and frameworks that encompass federal, state, municipal, and tribal water works that today shape our ways of life, our population, environment, and our food systems.

It is this intersection between water and our food system that interests us most.  What is the future of our food system given the limited nature of our water?  Where will, or should, both our water and food come from?

Arizona has a long history of agriculture, much of it dependent on groundwater.  However, over the last two decades, Arizona has depended on another water source: the Colorado River.  Last May, Tucson Mayor and Council approved a water rate increased proposed by Tucson Water, which goes into effect 2014. This water rate increase is due to multiple factors, including infrastructure upgrades, technology applications, and increases in Colorado River water rates.  Understanding the Colorado River is critical to understanding water in our region, so this is where we’ll take our first stop on today’s educational tour.

Colorado River Water

The Colorado River Compact of 1922—also called “The Law of the River”—appropriated water to seven Western states and today serves over 30 million people within the upper and lower basins; this compact began the comprehensive development and management of the Colorado River formally. It was originally projected to provide 18 million acre feet annually (one acre foot is the equivalent of 326,000 gallons of water) but history has shown that the river actually provides an average of 15 million acre feet annually.  This fluctuates significantly with lows of 5 million and highs of 20 million acre feet during past years.

The Central Arizona Project (CAP) aimed to provide central and southern Arizona access to its allocation of Colorado River water.  Approved in 1968, construction on the project began in 1973 and, through the creation of various dams, aqueducts, and even boreholes through mountains, CAP today conveys water stored at Lake Havasu to the Tucson area and many users along the way.  The project took over two decades to complete and cost $3.6 billion.  No small thing!

As part of an effort to manage and repay the cost of constructing it, the state legislature created the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) in 1971.  CAWCD provides water for Pima, Maricopa and Pinal counties and is responsible for establishing policies, levying taxes, setting water rates, approving budgets, and addressing other critical issues pertaining to the Colorado River  (www.cap-az.com). Of the $3.6 billion it took to construct CAP, an estimated $1.65 billion will be repaid to the federal government over 50 years; repayment began in 1993.

The customers of CAWCD water fall into 3 categories: municipal and industrial, agricultural, and Indian. Today, 27% is delivered to municipal  and industrial users, 25% is delivered to agriculture users, and 21% is delivered to Indian communities. The other 27% goes to the Recharge Program; recharge is a process that will be addressed in another post, but plays an important role in “replenishing” ground water.

For 15 years, Arizona has been in a state of drought, which climatologists expect to continue, causing further water shortages for the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California). The Colorado River’s variable flow and over allocation threaten current water demands.

To accommodate the population’s needs, Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and Lake Pleasant serve as water banks and have been able to buffer for the shortages thus far. It is estimated that the river is over allocated by 20%, and a 100-year study of the river’s natural flow shows a downtrend of flow for 80 years. Over allocation, drought, population growth and dwindling water levels exacerbate the problems; augmentation of the Colorado River will likely be required and is being planned. Because many state’s water rights don’t take into account this fluctuation, and are generally outdated, the over allocation of Colorado River water will continue to have negative impacts, economically and environmentally.

Another issue for Arizonans who rely on CAP water is energy. CAP water travels 336 miles across the state, originating in Lake Havasu and ending in southwest Tucson. Transporting CAP water thorough its conveyance system requires a tremendous amount of energy—energy that is currently being supplied by coal fired plants. The largest one—rated the 8th dirtiest coal plant in the U.S. by the EPA—is The Navajo Generating Station near Page, AZ. This coal-fired power station is responsible for providing 90% of the needed energy to transport CAP water across the state, and also produces electricity for customers in Arizona, Nevada, and California markets.

In 2012, the EPA finalized goals for Arizona to reduce emissions by 2023. The state of Arizona objects to these EPA regulations, and is in fact suing over the potential economic consequences of adhering to emissions regulations. The Arizona State Attorney’s Office cites uncertainty for coal plant owners, complexity of timing, unfair implementation rules, loss of jobs, utility cost increases, and denies that nitrogen oxides and other pollutants affect air quality, visibility or health in a significant way. Several government agencies and environmental groups have cited a “visibility impairment” at the Grand Canyon, and maintain that the haze is attributable to the regional coal plant. The bottom line, however, is that the state government has made clear environmental concerns should take a back seat to economic concerns and the issue is currently in the appeals process.

Notwithstanding the State of Arizona’s objections, Tucson Water has anticipated the increase of CAP rates, not only because of the emissions issue, but because of the happenings in the energy market.  CAWCD is actually part owner of the Navajo Generating Station power plant, and energy sales from the plant contribute a large portion of CAP’s revenue portfolio.  Unfortunately for CAWCD’s pocketbook, natural gas has become cheaper than coal-based energy, leading to a decreasing customer base.  CAP’s revenue projections for the 2012-2013 fiscal year were less than anticipated, leading to an estimated debt of $25 million yearly. CAP is in mitigation about what to do about 2014 rates as well as its current and ongoing deficit.

The CAP predicament affects Arizona and Tucson in major ways due its heavy reliance on CAP water. Tucson uses of nearly all of its CAP allotment and in 2011 CAP water accounted for approximately 60% of Tucson’s overall water production. That number increased to 75% in 2012-2013. CAP water, while having many environmental concerns of its own, has benefitted Tucson greatly by reducing dependence on the existing groundwater, which has dwindled to dangerously low levels.  CAP has also actively improved groundwater levels through the recharge process.

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the more than half dozen recharge sites around Arizona that serve to store water and recharge our groundwater supply.


[Next post: Tucson’s Reliance on CAP Water]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *