Experts within Arizona’s water management talk about the impact of the Colorado River peaking early and how it may affect the state’s current drought.
In the 85 years of records kept by the Colorado River Conservation District, only three other years – 1977, 2002 and 2012 – have seen lower levels. This year’s peak may become the third earliest peak in history.
Tom Buschatke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, says it’s 50 percent likely that 2020 will see water levels a foot below where they need to be. Arizona is accustomed to seeing historic flows over the last hundred years, but it’s not something the state should count on this time.
Lake Powell, which rests along the border of Arizona and Utah, is expected to receive only 42 percent of its average flow from the Colorado River. The river serves about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland.
“[In order to help the drought] we’ve re-managed reservoir supplies,” Associate General Manager of SRP Water Resources Dave Roberts says. “We’ve take a proactive approach. If next winter doesn’t look good, then we might have to re-up groundwater pumping.”
Buschatke says the early peaking is an indicator of climate change and an increase in temperatures. This last winter the state didn’t see a lot of snow, which had major repercussions. The soil the trees and plants rest in wasn’t able to stay moist which not only damaged the vegetation, but it also made the areas more susceptible to fire.
“Water managers are taking action to control this as much as possible,” Buschatke says. “We will need to do more conservation efforts.”
Roberts is remaining positive because Arizona has a strong history of good water management. Leaders in water management are currently looking at desalinization as a possible solution, Roberts says. Desalinization is a process that removes salt from water to make it drinkable. It’s been a viable answer in California and Mexico. It’s all a matter of technology efficiency.
TED SIMONS: GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO ARIZONA HORIZON. I'M TED SIMONS. RECENT NUMBERS SHOW THAT THE COLORADO RIVER IS AT ONE OF ITS LOWEST PEAK LEVEL FLOWS ON RECORD. COUPLE THAT WITH AN "EARLIER" THAN NORMAL PEAK FLOW ON THE RIVER AND YOU'VE GOT WATER CONCERNS, ESPECIALLY WITH THE DROUGHT SHOWING LITTLE SIGNS OF EASING. HERE NOW TO TALK ABOUT THE STATE'S WATER SUPPLY ISTOM BUSCHATZKE, DIRECTOR OF THE ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF WATER RESOURCES, AND DAVE ROBERTS, SALT RIVER PROJECT ASSOCIATE GENERAL MANAGER OF WATER RESOURCES, GOOD TO HAVE YOU BOTH HERE. THANKS FOR JOINING US. WE HAVE A DRY WINTER BEHIND US, HOT SUMMER AHEAD. HOW ARE WE LOOKING?
ISTOM BUSCHATZKE: OUT THERE IN THE INNER LANDS, JUST ABOUT EVERY PART OF ARIZONA IS AT SOME LEVEL OF DROUGHT AND SIGNIFICANTLY MORE THAN HALF OF ARIZONA IS IN AT LEAST EXTREME DROUGHT OR WORSE. BUT IN AREAS WITH SURFACE WATER OR AREAS THAT ARE RELYING ON COLORADO RIVER, WE ARE STILL ACTUALLY IN GOOD SHAPE. IN OTHER AREAS OF THE STATE, THEY ARE RELYING ON GROUND WATER. THE IMPACT, WE ARE SEEING NATIVE VEGETATION DYING, WHICH IS A VERY UNUSUAL SITUATION, TELLING YOU THE SEVERITY OF THE DROUGHT.
TED SIMONS: HOW CLOSE IS LAKE MEAD TO SHORTAGE LEVELS?
ISTOM BUSCHATZKE: WE WILL NOT HAVE A SHORTAGE IN THE CALENDAR YEAR 19. THE PROJECTIONS RIGHT NOW FOR CALENDAR YEAR 2020 ARE THAT WE ARE ABOUT A FOOT BELOW THE SHORTEST TRIGGER ELEVATION. BUT WE CAN DEAL WITH THAT THROUGH ADDITIONAL CONSERVATION, BUT THAT DOESN'T TELL THE WHOLE STORY. AND SO IF YOU LOOK AT THE PROBABILITIES OF SHORTAGE OCCURRING, IN 2020, IT'S OVER 50%. IT RISES IN SUBSEQUENT YEARS UP TO THE 60% RANGE AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, IF YOU LOOK AT LAKE MEAD FALLING TO 1025, A VERY UNHEALTHY LEVEL, THAT PROBABILTY IN 2023 IS 12 PERCENT. WE HAVE NEVER SEEN A DOUBLE DIGIT POSSIBILITY FOR THAT PARAMETER BEFORE. THAT'S VERY TELLING.
TED SIMONS: DISCONCERTING AS WELL. AS FAR AS THE WATER SHED WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT? IT SOUNDS LIKE THE RESERVOIRS ARE DOING WELL.
DAVE ROBERTS: THEY ARE. THEY ARE AT 57%, 1.3 MILLION-ACRES IN ALL OF OUR STORAGE FACILITIES, DESPITE A VERY DRY WINTER AND SPRING. THIS YEAR WILL GO DOWN AS THE LEAST AMOUNT OF RUNOFF WE HAVE HAD ON OUR RECORDS, 100,000-ACRE FEET COMPARED TO A MILLION LAST YEAR.
TED SIMONS: RESERVOIRS, 57% FULL, TERRIBLY DRY WINTER. WHY ARE THEY IN SUCH GOOD SHAPE?
DAVE ROBERTS: THEY ARE IN GOOD SHAPE BECAUSE WHEN WE MANAGE OUR SUPPLIES, WE USE GROUND WATER AND MONITOR THAT CAREFULLY TO BE SURE WE HAVE CARRY OVER STORAGE FOR THE NEXT YEAR AND WE HAVE THAT NOW.
TED SIMONS: THAT IS PROACTIVE MANAGEMENT AS FAR AS YOU’RE CONCERNED?
DAVE ROBERTS: THAT'S OUR DROUGHT CONTINGENCY PLAN.
TED SIMONS: YOU HAD THE PREVIOUS WINTER WHICH WAS PRETTY GOOD. IF THE NEXT WINTER IS NOT SO GOOD?
DAVE ROBERTS: IF THE NEXT WINTER IS NOT SO GOOD WE'LL UP OUR GROUND WATER PUMPING. THAT'S WHAT WE DID THIS YEAR BECAUSE OF THE LOW RUNOFF. NEXT YEAR, IF IT STAYS DRY DURING THE FALL AND WINTER, WE'LL UP OUR PUMPING AGAIN.
TED SIMONS: AS FAR AS THE COLORADO RIVER IS CONCERNED, WE TALK ABOUT ARRIVING EARLY, PEAK FLOWS EARLIER THAN USUAL. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? AND SECONDLY HOW CONCERNED SHOULD WE BE?
ISTOM BUSCHATZKE: IT IS VERY TELLING. PEAK FLOWS ARRIVING EARLIER IS A FUNCTION OF THE CLIMATE GETTING WARMER, THE SNOW MELTHING SOONER. AND ENDING UP WITH LESS RUNOFF. THIS YEAR FOR THE ENTIRE WATER YEAR ENDING IN SEPTEMBER, WE ARE AT 52% OF THE LONG TERM HISTORICAL AVERAGE. OTHER INDICATORS ARE DISCONCERTING LIKE WE TALKED ABOUT EARLIER. SOME OF THOSE ARE THE FACT THAT IF YOU LOOK AT RECORD OVER THE LAST 30 YEARS OF FLOW, VERSES THE HUNDRED YEAR HISTORIC RECORD, WE ARE 11% LESS. DROUGHT PERIOD 2017, WE ARE 15% LESS. SCIENTISTS ARE WARNING US THAT, THAT'S OUR FUTURE. WE ARE NOT GOING TO SEE HISTORIC LEVELS OF THE PAST. WE WILL HAVE TO DO WITH LESS WATER IN LAKE MEAD.
TED SIMONS: WILL WE HAVE TO DO WITH LESS WATER COMING OUT OF THE RESERVOIRS AND THE WATERSHED SALT AND VERDE WATERSHEDS?
DAVE ROBERTS: YES. WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE RIGHT NOW DOINGS SOME RESEARCH WITH THE BUREAU OF ACCLIMATION. SOME OF THE OTHER WESTERN STATES LOOKING AT WHAT THE LONG TERM IMPACT IS. A LOT OF THE SCIENCE FROM WHAT WE HAVE SEEN IS UNSURE OF WHAT WILL HAPPEN THERE, BUT WE'LL HAVE MORE ANSWERS LATER THIS YEAR ON THAT
TED SIMONS: TOM MENTIONED LACK OF SNOW PACK SO YOU GET THE RUNOFF. THE IMPORTANCE OF SNOW PACK RUNOFF IN ARIZONA IN THE HIGH COUNTRY AS FAR AS WATER IS CONCERNED?
DAVE ROBERTS: IT IS HUGE IN TERMS OF THE WETTING OF SOIL SO THAT WHEN WE DO GET MORE SNOW OR RAIN OR PRESCRIPTION RUNOFF IN THE STREAMS, IT'S HUGE. THE OTHER ASPECT, IT KEEPS THE TREES AND SOIL MOIST. AND THAT IS WHY THE BIG ISSUE IS HERE WE ARE CONCERNED ABOUT THE LONG FIRE SEASON FACING US. WE HAVE HAD TWO FIRES FACING US ON THE WATERSHED. WE ARE CONCERNED ABOUT WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS ON THAT FOR SUMMER. BETTER FOR THE SNOW PACK IN THE GROUND WHERE EVAPORATION AND SUN CAN GET AT IT.
TED SIMONS: AND WHEN IT COMES TO STORING. BETTER IT BE SNOW PACT IN THE GROUND AS OPPOSED TO UP WHERE THE SUN CAN GET AT IT? WHERE EVAPORATION CAN GET AT IT? THE WHOLE NINE YARDS.
ISTOM BUSCHATZKE: ARIZONA HAS AN UNDERGROUND STORAGE PROGRAM COLLECTING WHAT FOLK IN THIS STATE HAVE DONE. THE TYPICAL HOUSEHOLD USES ONE THIRD OF AN ACRE. THAT IS 30 MILLION HOUSEHOLD WITH WATER STORED UNDER THE GROUND. A LOT OF THAT IS SALT RIVER WATER AND OTHER SOURCES AS WELL.
TED SIMONS: ALRIGHT I WILL ASK YOU BOTH THIS IT SOUNDS LIKE WE ARE DOING OKAY. WE HAVE SUMMER COMING UP WE DON’T KNOW WHAT NEXT WINTER IS GOING TO BE LIKE. ARE WE WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD?
ISTOM BUSCHATZKE: CERTAINLY WE ARE NOT PAST THE GRAVEYARD HERE WE ARE TAKING ACTIONS TO TRY TO CONTROL AS MUCH OF THIS AS WE CAN TO PUT OURSELVES IN THE BEST POSITION. IN 2014 2015 SORRY 2015 2016 2017 WE ADVERTED SHORTAGES FROM LAKE MEAD TO CONSERVATION PROGRAMS COLLECTIVELY IN ARIZONA, NEW MEXICO AND THAT'S OUR FUTURE WE WILL NEED TO DO MORE CONSERVATION. THAT WILL MINIMIZE SOME OF THE IMPACTS OF THE HYDROLOGY WE EXPECT TO SEE LESS WATER IN THE SYSTEM AND INTO THE FUTURE.
TED SIMONS: SAME QUESTION TO YOU ARE WE JUST WAITING FOR THE INEVITABLE HERE?
DAVE ROBERTS: I THINK IN SOME RESPECTS YES BUT WE HAVE HAD A LONG TERM HISTORY OF GOOD WATER MANAGEMENT. WE ARE LOOKING OUT FOR THE FUTURE. IN TERMS OF INNOVATION WITH RESPECT TO WATER SOURCE. TOM AND I ARE INVOLVED IN A PROCESS THAT IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR US NEWS THE FUTURE. AND THERE IS WATER IN OTHER PARTS OF THE STATE THAT WE CAN HAVE AS WELL FOR OTHER USES.
TED SIMONS: AND WE’VE HEARD ABOUT DESALINATION FOR YEARS IS IT EVER GOING TO BE VIABLE?
DAVE ROBERTS: WELL IT HAS BEE VIABLE IN CALIFORNIA, THEY ARE USING IT THERE. THEY ARE USING IT IN MEXICO IN SOME PLACES. THERE IS A LOT OF WATER IN THE OCEAN. I THINK IT'S A MATTER OF TECHNOLOGY GETTING THERE. IT'S MORE EFFICIENT AND LESS COSTLY.
TED SIMONS: DO YOU AGREE?
ISTOM BUSCHATZKE: I CERTAINLY AGREE. THE LAST DEAL WE DID WITH MEXICO, THIS FALL OF 2017 INCLUDED TEEING UP FINANCIALLY DESALINATION WITH THE US MEXICO AND I BELIEVE ARIZONA. THERE IS A GROUP THAT WAS PUT TOGETHER, I AM THE CO-CHAIR OF THE US SIDE. THERE IS A MEXICAN COUNTER PART ON THE SONORA SIDE.
TED SIMONS: ALRIGHT VERY GOOD. GOOD CONVERSATION. GOOD TO HAVE YOU BOTH HERE. THANKS FOR JOINING US WE APPRECIATE IT. COMING UP LATER ON ARIZONA HORIZON, WE SEE HOW RESEARCHERS ARE WORKING ON A WAY TO VACCINATE HONEY BEES.
Tom Buschatke: Director, Arizona Department of Water Resources
Dave Roberts: Associate General Manager, SRP Water Resources