By Robert Medler, Arizona Government Affairs Manager
One Thousand Forty-Five. That is the elevation, in feet, of Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam (on the day I am writing this.) Lake Mead is 25 feet lower than it was on the same day in June 2021, and a staggering 44 feet lower than June 2020. Between now and the historical low point of the year on Lake Mead, the water elevation will drop another four to six feet based on data from the last five years. If you were wondering the last time Lake Mead was at this elevation, it was sometime in late 1937—when the lake was filling originally. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is suggesting a reduction in use of between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet within the lower Colorado River basin is needed.
Arizona is the only state in the Colorado Basin that is entirely located within the basin. Every drop of water in Arizona theoretically drains to the Colorado River. Our state has grown exponentially due to the advancement in technologies, and the ability to harness the resources of the mighty Colorado. As we thrive in Arizona, outsiders continue to question our economic vitality and viability, as well as the appropriateness of past policy decisions.
Depressing news with respect to water supply and availability is not new to our industry. The fresh produce industry in the southwest has survived the ebbs and flows of not only the Colorado River and other major water supplies, but also those of the media, politicians and the public. There is a change a coming though. And it is in Arizona.
With the FY23 state budget passed and signed, Arizona has made a landmark investment for water resources and infrastructure. In his State of the State address, Gov. Doug Ducey proposed a $1 billion investment towards water augmentation (read: desalination) and shovel-ready infrastructure projects throughout rural Arizona. The legislation took the entire legislative session and saw numerous iterations. In the end it was a bipartisan bill—only one dissenting vote in each chamber—that invests more than $1 billion over the next three years, re-establishes the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority as a separate state agency with a governing board and several committees to assist in reviewing applications for funding. The bill further authorizes WIFA to engage in public-private partnerships for water supply development projects, mostly through the newly established Long-Term Water Augmentation Fund to primarily fund projects to import water into Arizona.
Legislative action is not the only action occurring in Arizona. In May, the Department of Water resources and the Central Arizona Project held a joint briefing on Colorado River shortage preparations. Planned additional savings will leave approximately 812,000 AF in Lake Mead. Gila River Indian Tribes, Mohave Valley and Yuma Mesa Irrigation Districts, along with over 12 other municipal water districts, are working to create these combined savings. With Tier 2b shortage on the horizon, other partners have worked together to offset those impending cuts.
The drought in the Colorado River basin has garnered the full attention of Arizona policymakers and water professionals. Unlike other states within the basin, Arizona is finding ways to keep water in Lake Mead, and planning now for future cuts. There is more that can be done, some of which will require difficult conversations and even more difficult decisions. Yuma is world renowned for the irrigation efficiency practices employed, and as a result will continue to thrive for the near future. Over 40 years of water management practices have left Arizona with options, options that allow Arizona to be nimble when facing a potentially dire situation. As a result for the foreseeable future, Arizona’s fresh produce industry is on strong footing to continue to thrive and provide for not only the nation, but the world.