In the West, whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.
Arizona residents felt the reality of that maxim on Aug. 15 as several Western states announced that two months of closed-door negotiations to cut an emergency 12% to 25% from next year’s Colorado River withdrawals had yielded bupkus.
The Bureau of Reclamation in June demanded the deep cuts to bolster the amount of water in Lakes Powell and Mead, which have been dropping faster than predicted in recent years amid long-term drought and warming climate.
About a third of Arizona’s annual water supplies come from those reservoirs.
There was hope that the states, faced with the increasingly realistic threat of dead pool conditions on the Colorado and loss of hydropower production, would come together and deliver a deal.
But those hopes were dashed two weeks ago as states started to point fingers when the deadline passed.
Arizona’s delegation of negotiators said in a statement that “Arizona and Nevada put forward an aggressive proposal that would achieve 2 (million acre-feet) of reductions among the Lower Basin and Mexico in 2023 and beyond. That proposal was rejected.”
“There is still time,” Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told reporters earlier this month. He did not set a new deadline, but he and other federal officials warn Arizona’s water situation is severe.
The Bureau of Reclamation has told the states to reduce their usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet in 2023. That amounts to Arizona’s entire annual consumption. Maybe more.
“You can’t possibly overestimate how hard this is,” Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board told Politico magazine in July. “Each state has their own peculiar set of politics.”
Here in Arizona, the Municipalities Water Users Association says that despite the states’ failure to reach a mid-August agreement, people won’t see any difference at their taps – at least right away. Its website notes that “unpredictability” can always change immediate access to water.
“Municipal water providers face operational challenges with their treatment plants and delivery systems without knowing how significant a cutback will be required from their Colorado River water supply,” the AMWUA stated.
Queen Creek has made no changes to curb residential or commercial water usage for now, nor does it seem to have any immediate plans to do so.
“The Bureau of Reclamation’s recent announcement of a Tier 2a Shortage does not impact the Town’s groundwater supply,” writes Queen Creek Public Information Office Constance Halonen-Wilson. “The Town has a 100-year assured supply of groundwater.
“The Town continues to have ample groundwater supply and is taking proactive steps to conserve water through programs, education and infrastructure.”
The Town also is awaiting Bureau of Reclamation action on a plan it and GSC Farm LLC has proposed since 2019 to stop irrigating 485 acres of farmland near the Colorado River and to have that water sent to Queen Creek.
The land is located within the Cibola Valley Irrigation and Drainage District in La Paz County and the deal would yield 2,083 acre-feet of Colorado River water — about 678 million gallons.
An acre foot generally equals three to three-and-a-half years of a household’s interior and exterior water needs in Arizona, according to the state Department of Water Resources, although many variables affect that average.
“Currently this matter is with the Bureau of Reclamation for their approval,” said Sharon Scantlebury who works in the department’s legal division.
The Department of Water Resources on Sept. 4, 2020, endorsed the sale.
Queen Creek Public Utilities Director Paul Gardner, has said that the proposed deal is consistent with the town’s philosophy of reducing its reliance on groundwater by securing other sources.
Queen Creek residents won’t have to worry for now about the states’ squabbling but for area farmers, it’s a different matter.
“It is reasonable to say that Queen Creek is not going to run out of water any time soon, but it’s going to be for municipal use, not for ag use,” said Mark Schnepf, owner of Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, which grows peaches on a commercial scale and is a major agritainment center in the Valley.
“We have given up so much of our water to the city and to the tribes to accommodate the feds, so agriculture is going to be the first to be cut off from water,” he said. “They will save the water for municipal uses.”
Despite the 100-year supply of available groundwater, Queen Creek is facing other logistical and geographic challenges, largely because of how quickly the town is sprawling, Schnepf said.
“Their growth areas are to the North and to the East where it’s desert land and there is no water available,” Schnepf said. “That’s why they are active at trying to find additional water sources.”
The states’ failure to come up with a plan this month opens the door for the Interior department to do what the states couldn’t.
“If the federal government steps in and does the drastic cuts that it could, Arizona is going to be the hardest hit,” Schnepf said. “We had to do that in order to get the funding. It was a political decision that was made way back when.”
Under the existing Water Rights Compact hammered out in the 1980s during the formation of the Central Arizona Project, Arizona is lowest on the priority list .
“The whole river system is stressing because of a lack of water,” Schnepf said. “And California is still taking their 100% and we’ve been cutting back and we’ve been cutting back. And now we could potentially be cut back more. We can only hope that it will be a shared sacrifice on all of our parts.”
That looming unpredictability remains a big issue for Arizona.
“From our perspective, the announcement left us wondering if the mid-year cuts will take place in 2023 or not,” said Mesa Councilman Kevin Thompson of nearby Eastmark, who sits on the Municipalities Water Users Association board.
“Reclamation hasn’t really provided guidance on how to proceed, which is causing frustration from ADWR [Arizona Dept. of Water Resources] all the way down to the local municipalities that rely on Colorado River water. Even though the City is in a good position currently, we would still like time to work through contingencies to ensure our citizens are protected.”
“If the fed steps in and decides it’s going to run everything,” Schnepf warned, it’s going to come down to “who has the better lobbyist, who has the better ear or the bigger hammer … and California is a lot bigger than we are.”