In a pair of articles last month, reporter Tony Davis – perhaps the Arizona Daily Star’s last old-school investigative journalist — told a story about the escalating conflict between two agencies for control of the state’s water future. The Arizona Department of Water Resources, under the Governor’s direction, manages statewide water issues while the Central Arizona Project’s Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAP) manages the Colorado River water life in the desert depends on.
According to Davis, Governor Doug Ducey wants control to spur growth and development and for there to be one voice in the state on water issues. CAP, they argue, only has jurisdiction in three counties, Pima, Pinal and Maricopa. At the heart of the issue is a decline in Colorado River water into the Lake Mead reservoir, a decline which could cut off supplies to the south under existing agreements. The fight for water in a dry desert is nothing new.
In 1933 then-Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur mobilized the state’s National Guard troops and dispatched them to the Colorado River to prevent California from building Parker Dam, claiming it would be “stealing” Arizona’s water. One hundred Guardsmen arrived at the dam site with machine guns and construction workers laid down their shovels and left their bulldozers. The Guardsmen commandeered a ferry boat – dubbed “The Arizona Navy” – to patrol the river.
Construction was held up for a year, with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding that California was “illegally exporting” Arizona’s water. Congress then passed a law nullifying the Court’s decision and allowing California to capture and store Colorado River water. In 1922, following a period of high rain- and snowfall, the river’s water was divvied up among seven states under the guidance of then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.
The Colorado River Compact was meant to ensure continuous supplies of water to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, with California receiving the lion’s share even though it generated none of the river’s water. The Compact was rejected by the states until Congress acted in 1928. Arizona, which had only received promises from the Compact, maintained opposition until Mexico was granted a share in a 1944 water rights treaty.
In 1966 Congress approved the Central Arizona Project and a canal was built to carry Colorado River water south, a canal trying to be a 333-mile “man-made river flowing uphill in a place of almost no rain,” as author Marc Reisner put it in Cadillac Desert.
Native Americans lost agricultural land as commercial agriculture and open pit copper mining took their water table down to bedrock. In 1975 the O’odham pressured the federal government to bring a lawsuit against Tucson and the companies that stole their aquifer. A legislated settlement reallocating CAP and other water in 1982 was not implemented until amended in 2004, cutting some tribes out of the settlement until 2030.
The problem today is that the amount of water the Colorado River carries is less than the amount allocated by politicians and is in decline due to climate change. Lake Mead, which Las Vegas depends on for both water and power, has been dropping 10 feet a year. At this writing, Lake Mead is at 39 percent of capacity, with Lake Powell at 60 percent of capacity. A drop below 1075 feet on January 1 of any year can trigger huge cuts to southern Arizona. Today’s level is 1094 feet, but that has skirted perilously close to the trigger several times in the last two years. Some 30 million people depend on that water supply.
Plans have been floated, no pun intended, to bring water to the Southwest from Canadian glaciers and the Mississippi River. Desalination of sea water is feasible but the high cost and long lead time of such projects, and the problem of what to do with the brine, keeps them bottled up. Former Governor Jan Brewer proposed trading CAP shares for water piped in from not-yet-built desalination plants in California or Mexico, but her budget cuts killed a new Water Institute, a three-university effort at long-range planning.
The Santa Cruz River ran until the 1940s when agricultural use drew down the water table. Post-World War 2 population and building booms further depleted water supplies. The one bright spot locally is that ground water in the Avra Valley is actually rising due to recharge from wastewater plants and Tucson’s allotment of CAP water being pumped to valley settling ponds. Shrinking snow packs in the Rockies and reduced river flow threaten that.
It’s not really about growth versus no-growth, as the governor suggests. It’s more about what amount of growth is sustainable in a desert with shrinking water supplies. There used to be enough for tens of thousands of ancient peoples in the Tucson and Phoenix areas who built elaborate canal systems and constructed terraces on mountains to capture monsoon downpours and create farmland. After thousands of years the drought-stricken Huhugam had to change course. Huhugam, that O’odham word for their ancestors, means “all used up.”