The Arizona Republic
All it takes is 10 feet of water to go from caution to crisis on the Colorado River.
That's why Arizona farmers like Dan Thelander support a new agreement that will help conserve the amount of water in Lake Mead even though it could mean short-term sacrifices for them.
The water level at Lake Mead is currently at about 1,085 feet above sea level, hovering near its lowest point since the dame was built in the 1930s. A drop of 10 more feet to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's official tipping point of 1,075 feet would trigger swift and significant supply reductions.
Arizona agriculture would be the first to take a hit.
Under a new multistate agreement signed this week, Colorado River water users will save a portion of their allotments to store in Lake Mead and boost the lake's levels. Arizona is committing to save the most water among the states, which means some deliveries and diversions will be reduced to keep water in the system.
Thelander grows alfalfa, barley, cotton and other crops on about 5,000 acres in Pinal County. His irrigation district is taking a voluntary cut, which may affect farmers' operations.
He said it's a small price to pay to postpone the more drastic reductions they would be hit with under a shortage.
"It's kind of a bogeyman that's out there," he said. "Farmers know about it."
Under the new agreement, Arizona agencies will work with Nevada, California and the federal government to store water in Lake Mead. Residential users in Arizona are not expected to be affected by the reductions.
No one knows exactly how a shortage would play out, but Arizona will be the first to face cuts based on its junior priority to California. Reductions would hit farmers before cities like Phoenix that depend on the Colorado River supply.
The agreement's proposed 740,000 acre-feet water savings aims to keep roughly an extra 10 feet in Lake Mead by 2017, buying time for water planners as they address a system dried from drought and drawing for farms and cities across the west. An acre-foot of water is enough to supply two or three families for a year, experts say.
"We're trying to stave off a crisis," said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for the Central Arizona Project.
After more than 14 years of drought, a shortage could come as soon as 2016, Cullom said. Lake Mead is at about 40 percent of its capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
CAP will take the largest share of the voluntary reductions, committing to saving 345,000 acre-feet of water between now and 2017. The agency manages Arizona's Colorado River water allotment for municipal and agricultural users in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, using a 336-mile-long canal system.
The savings are a small portion of the water delivered or diverted for storage, but participating agencies said it's a start in addressing the imbalance between the river's supply and the demand on it.
Southern California's water district will aim to save 300,000 acre-feet, and the agency in southern Nevada will save 45,000 acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation's goal is 50,000 acre-feet.
Under the terms agreed to when the CAP began construction in the 1960s, Arizona's water rights are the first to go. California is guaranteed its supply, but the logistics would likely be a legal nightmare in the case of a shortage, officials said.
The lower the elevation of Lake Mead, the more severe the reductions. Under CAP's priority system, Arizona farmers are the first to lose their water, though the pinch would later apply to municipal users.
Under this week's agreement, Phoenix water customers are unlikely to notice a difference. Most of the voluntary cuts fall on irrigation districts providing water to farmers in the central part of the state.
Nine districts served by CAP will together conserve 161,000 acre-feet that they would otherwise receive from CAP before 2017 — nearly half of the agency's total savings.
For the water the districts do get, CAP is providing a discounted rate to incentivize temporary changes in farming techniques by their agricultural customers to reduce water use.
"Hopefully, economically, it's about a wash," said Paul Orme, a lawyer representing three of the participating districts.
The Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, where Pinal County farmer Thelander is a board member, will take a voluntary 20,000 acre-feet cut in its CAP water supply next year.
Keeping more water in Lake Mead will avert a shortage declaration and give farmers more time to plan, said Brian Betcher, general manager of the district. Water is their most expensive input, and it's difficult to change crops with little notice, he added.
"We have to be on top of it and see things before they come at us," he said.
The district can likely compensate for this year's voluntary reduction by increasing groundwater pumping, Betcher said. The method could, however, increase rates in the future, depending on power and energy costs.
"We're looking at it as giving a little to hopefully save a lot," Betcher said.
A CAP fallowing program already in place in Yuma will also contribute to the Lake Mead savings. The remainder of the goal comes from yearly operational decisions, like storing excess water unused by customers, and a deal to replace some of Phoenix's CAP water with local supplies.
Phoenix water rates won't be affected by the deal, said Kathryn Sorensen, the city's water-services director.
Other states are still deciding how they will meet their Lake Mead storage goals.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California doesn't have a firm proposal but is in talks with agricultural agencies and other users, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River Resources. California's part of the agreement provides extra flexibility for using its savings for short-term drought relief until conditions improve in the state.
"We just don't know where we'll be a year from now," Hasencamp said.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority approved the agreement in recent days, spokesman Scott Huntley said. He said he didn't have information on potential projects.
The agreement is a sign of the shifting dialogue about managing the Colorado River, said Dave White, an Arizona State University associate professor who focuses on water policy. The looming pressure of a shortage is fueling cooperation among states that have historically fended for themselves, he added.
While the West's water solutions for the past 100 years have relied on the engineering of dams and reservoirs, the next 100 years will depend on collaboration, said White, who works for ASU's School of Community Resources and Development and the Global Institute of Sustainability.
Recent agreements at the local and regional level may focus on small-scale pilot projects, but they are important because of the proactive thinking they show, White said. Any relief will give water managers time to plan — or to let nature do the work.
"Essentially what they're trying to do is buy time," White said. "This is a more sophisticated version of the 'pray for rain' strategy."