Colorado River System Reservoirs

More from this show

Lower water levels in Lake Mead are expected to trigger a water shortage for 2016. If there is a Colorado River shortage then, no direct impact is expected for cities, residential water users, and Native American Indian Tribes served by the Central Arizona Project. Sandra Fabritz Whitney, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and David Modeer, General Manager of the CAP, will discuss the possible water shortage.

Ted Simons: The worst drought in a century could lead to lower releases of Colorado River water by 2016. What does that mean for the state's residential and agricultural water needs? We asked Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and David Modeer, general manager of the Central Arizona Project. Good to see you both again, thanks for joining us. What are the water levels right now at Lake Powell?

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney: Lake Powell is just about 30 feet above the trigger level that would require the Bureau of Reclamation to lower the release. It's based on the anticipated levels later in the year. So based on those levels the water level elevation -- 3,575 -- is the key trigger. Based on that it determines how much water you're going to release out of Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

Ted Simons: How much water -- just a general overview here, if it's 45-some-odd percent full right now, what kind of water releases are we talking about?

David Modeer: The normal criteria is 8.23 million acre-foot is released out of Powell down to Lake Mead, unless there's flood levels or unless we're going into what Sandy just talked about. Then they'll reduce it. The projected is at about 7.48 million acre-foot will be released this next water year because of the shortage of inflows into Lake Powell.

Ted Simons: And this would be, I read, the lowest release since the lake was first filled?

David Modeer: Correct.

Ted Simons: That's got to be a concern.

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney: Of course it's a concern, but it's something that we have been planning for for many years. The state of Arizona and the other basin states, the Colorado River basin states, have different -- obviously we have different approaches in how we manage our water supplies but we also have been working within our state, working with our partners at CAP and at Salt River Project, our water users across the state in preparing for lower releases.

Ted Simons: What would the impact be to cities and towns?

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney: The interesting thing is the first 7.48 reduction or reduction to 7.48 really doesn't trigger a shortage. The Lake Mead elevation is also part of this operational structure on the river. That operational structure when Lake Mead hits an elevation of 1,075 is when the states, the lower basin states and Mexico start having to reduce their water use.

Ted Simons: When reductions coming out of Lake Powell into Lake Mead, when these happen, is there a priority? Is there a list of folks who are affected?

David Modeer: There's two levels. One of them is, what's the priority between the states. Due to Arizona's junior priority the Central Arizona Project takes the brunt of any shortage when it's declared. Within the state of Arizona, Arizona Department of Water Resources and all the stakeholders in CAP have reached agreement about the priorities of who gets reduced first. The first stage really comes out of the excess water supplies and buried within that is non-Indian agriculture, although we realize the importance of Ag to Arizona and water policy that we'll be working with all the stakeholders, with Sandy and her department to try to find unique ways to make sure that no particular entity gets hurt overly in this first area of shortage.

Ted Simons: So agriculture would be first. What about urban areas?

David Modeer: They have the highest priority of CAP water. They will be the last impacted. It likely would not happen until near the tail ends of a third stage of the shortage when they would be impacted and to a smaller degree. As Sandy said, we have done a lot of planning. We have a lot of water stored in the ground in order to anticipate this was going to happen. This all goes back to the compromises made to construct CAP we had to agree to be the junior priority user of water. Because of that, we have been planning as a state, our congressional delegation and the federal government and Sandy's department over the years have been doing many, many things knowing that someday we were going to experience a shortage and we would take the brunt of it.

Ted Simons: What about power production? That has to be concerned as well or is it?

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney: We have heard or seen many stories on that. It's all in how you manage and operate the reservoir, especially Lake Powell. There are trigger levels. I don't have those with me right now but we're not near those levels for power production.

Ted Simons: I read where the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the chief, said that this is serious business. Federal disaster aid is needed. We have hit a crisis point. I'm not sensing crisis here. What's going on?

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney: It goes back to how each state sort of responds to these things. We have had decades to respond since the mid 60's even going back that far when the Central Arizona Project was authorized then moving forward in time the Groundwater Management Act, that act put in place mandatory water conservation for all water users. Many of those were already implementing those measures. But that required mandatory water reductions already, so more efficiency. You add on top of that the additional requirements for conserving ground water through the 100 years water supply rules and the ability to augment those water supplies through underground storage and recovery and through the Water Banking Authority. We have stored in this state over 8 million acre-feet. We have extra water stored in the aquifer to protect folks against shortage, in addition to preserving the ground water supplies long term.

Ted Simons: Last question: the plans in place -- obviously there's confidence at this desk that things will be okay. But we had a 100-year drought here, the worst 14-year period in the last 100 years. Are there plans if X turns into X-squared?

David Modeer: I think we are developing plans is what I would say right now. The concerns of southern Nevada are different than ours. Their circumstances are a bit different. They don't have agriculture that offsets things or places to store a lot of water. So if the drought continues and we get down to much lower levels, it's a real concern for all of us. As a result of that, we are working together, the three lower basin states, very cooperatively, along with the upper basin. There's a role for the upper basin to play in managing this drought. I believe we will. We have shown a capacity to work together, come up with some compromises to fend off this drought for a period of time. No one knows how long it's going to last or how deep it's going to get.

Ted Simons: Thank you both for being here. We appreciate it.

David Modeer: Thank you for having us.

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney: Thank you.

Sandra Fabritz-Whitney:Director, Arizona Department of Water Resources;David Modeer:General Manager, CAP;

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Three main characters from mystery shows premiering this summer

It’s the Summer of Mystery!

Graphic with the words
airs July 19

Psyche mission

Former President Donald Trump

Republican National Convention: Four nights of coverage

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: