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Drought Plan Cuts Arizona Allotment of Colorado River Water

An extended drought has caused the water levels in Lake Mead near Las Vegas to drop more than 100 feet since 2000. (alexfamous/AdobeStock)
An extended drought has caused the water levels in Lake Mead near Las Vegas to drop more than 100 feet since 2000. (alexfamous/AdobeStock)

August 26, 2019

PHOENIX – Starting next year, Arizona will get a smaller allotment of water from the Colorado River Basin, which could eventually mean homeowners and businesses will pay higher utility bills.

That's a major concern for low-income Arizonans who already pay a significant amount of their income for water.

It's part of an agreement signed in May that reapportions the water drawn from Lake Mead.

Robert Glennon, a water-policy expert with the University of Arizona, says the battle over who gets how much Colorado River water has been going on for decades and is a problem of supply and demand.

"Lower basin states are taking out an amount of water that is simply unsustainable given the median flow levels in the Colorado River over the last 1,000 years," he states.

Glennon says unrestrained use, a decades-long drought and climate change has forced the federal Bureau of Reclamation to impose the Drought Contingency Plan.

Under the plan, Arizona will get about 7% less each year through 2026, while Nevada and Mexico will see smaller cuts.

California will keep most of its allotment, though it will also face restrictions if Lake Mead levels continue to drop.

Glennon says in the short term, most Arizona homes and businesses won't feel the loss right away.

"Most of the municipal supplies are high priorities, so you're not going to see the cities being cut off anytime soon,” he explains. “About 80% of the water in the Colorado River is consumed by agriculture and livestock.”

If states don't find alternative sources for water or there isn't any long-term relief from the drought, Glennon says, severe conservation measures could eventually be put in place.

"Most Americans pay more for cell phone service or cable television than they do for water and that creates perverse incentives to use water because it's not valued,” he points out. “So, we need to price water appropriately.”

He adds that while last winter saw a good snow pack in the Rockies, it will take several years of above-average precipitation, combined with less usage, to significantly raise water levels in the reservoirs.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ