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Arizona’s Water Woes

Arizona’s Water Woes

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Arizona’s reputation for remote backyard desert landscapes alongside rapidly-growing central metropolises is facing a moment of reckoning. In early January, the City of Scottsdale, Arizona cut off water service to the small rural community of Rio Verde Foothills pursuant to an expired water delivery contract. Scottsdale had long prepared Rio Verde Foothills residents for the prospects of water shutoff, citing megadrought conditions and shifting municipal water needs as justification for discontinuing service to approximately 700 households, but residents are naturally frustrated.

The shutoff comes just prior to the Bureau of Reclamation’s supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for near-term Colorado River Operations. The August 15, 2022 deadline for the seven Colorado River Basin states to submit their proposals on how to cut two-to-four million acre-feet of additional consumptive water use passed without an agreement. The basin states again failed to reach a consensus before the Bureau’s second January 31, 2023 deadline, with California’s input notably absent from the states’ most recent joint conservation proposal. Now, many water policy experts predict the federal government will unilaterally mandate aggressive reductions to state allocations. In the case of Arizona, this means the Central Arizona Project (CAP) will again have to reconcile the waning water supply with increasing economic demand.

The CAP canal carries Arizona’s Colorado River entitlement to central Arizona water users. Since its completion in 1993, Arizona’s major metropolitan areas and economic hubs have economically flourished under the reliability of CAP flows, managed under subcontracts with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD). Increasing water shortages by DOI are hampering water sales, though, in turn affecting repayment to the federal government. Today, the federal debt owed by CAWCD for the CAP project remains at more than $1 billion, as new restrictions risk cutting deep into CAWCD’s bottom line.

When the Bureau of Reclamation promulgated less aggressive shortage measures in 2021, CAP’s tiered system of water priorities imposed the bulk of the shortage on rural farmers in southeastern Arizona. For scale, Pinal County growers saw an 87% reduction in Colorado River water entitlements, forcing many to turn to unsustainable groundwater pumping to offset CAP losses. Aquifer overdraft–a pervasive issue in Pinal County–is now an increasing threat across the Colorado River Basin, as irrigation districts in California’s Central Valley and New Mexico’s Lower Rio Grande basin are also placing greater reliance on groundwater within their respective water portfolios. This trend, in turn, is offsetting policymakers’ delicate task of managing water portfolios to ensure reliable water supplies and maintain the status quo of western expansionism.

State-Level Solutions

Arizona’s primary effort to preserve groundwater tables has historically been guided bythe Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980. At a high level, this progressive legislative measure heavily regulates groundwater pumping and well development within five Active Management Areas (AMAs), corresponding loosely with Arizona’s five densest population centers.

Due to the desert landscape’s propensity for urban sprawl and central Arizona’s metropolitan boom, development has quickly outgrown these AMA boundaries over time. Additionally problematic is the historical lack of oversight outside of AMAs, where groundwater overdraft has led to land subsidence and collapsed aquifers that are detrimental to rural communities. Similar to Pinal County’s shift in water supply, looming CAP shortages will likely force other communities to place greater dependence on groundwater mining. This larger trend demands substantive reform to Arizona’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act to achieve congruity with the current demographic composition.

In addition to legislative reform, western states are exploring several water development methods to augment depleting groundwater resources and a dwindling Colorado River supply. Former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey called for a 1-billion-dollar appropriation to the Arizona Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA) near the end of his term, alluding to a deal with Mexico to desalinate water in the Sea of Cortez for pumping to central Arizona. The prospects of such a deal have quickly materialized into a $5bn dollar proposal by IDE Technologies, an Israeli desalination company at the international forefront of water treatment in arid regions. Many community groups, however, have criticized the expedited proposal before WIFA as enjoying preferential treatment over smaller-scale water conservation projects from local stakeholders.

A Federal Role

Further complicating the fight over western water are the federal government’s outstanding regional hydropower investments and fiduciary obligations. Domestically, the Bureau of Reclamation’s financial interest in maintaining hydropower operations at Lake Mead and Lake Powell is critical to both regional energy supply and long-term financing of costly water infrastructure. Underlying this objective, the federal government is also bound implicitly by the terms of each Indian land reservation to reserve the minimum amount of water to serve its primary purpose; in fact, the Supreme Court recently granted certiorari on a breach of trust claim brought by the Navajo Nation against the Department of the Interior for failure to adequately safeguard their water rights. Because the west generally follows a first-in-time, first-in-right regime for deciding water right seniority, 29 tribes in the Colorado River basin hold some of the Colorado’s most senior water rights, but have long lacked the delivery infrastructure to utilize them. As President Biden signs water rights settlements with Indian tribes along the Colorado River, these obligations place additional pressure on the river system and add to an ever-growing number of claimants. In addition, military installations such as Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona also face litigation along smaller southwestern tributaries for exorbitant groundwater pumping that deplete flows in ecologically-sensitive areas.

Internationally, the U.S.-Mexico Treaty of 1944 obligates the United States to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually, a delivery made increasingly difficult by above-border demand. In 2022, Mexico’s allotment was reduced by 50,000 acre-feet, in step with U.S. consumptive cuts. The International Boundary and Water Commission has managed U.S.-Mexico negotiations over water shortage since 2007 that have kept geopolitical tensions at bay. Although the treaty’s terms account for periods of drought and delivery shortages, decreased flows breed water quality issues that harm crop yields, native ecosystems, and increase water treatment costs.

As the popular saying in the wild west goes, “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.” Although the fighting has remained in the courts and on the debate floors for now, one thing is clear—demand for water in the American Southwest is mounting, and mechanisms for conservation alone are no longer sufficient to achieve a safe yield of responsible water use. The longevity of Arizona and her fellow basin states will soon require a serious reconfiguration in water supply portfolio. Policymakers must restrain a decades-old growth endeavor driven by manifest destiny principles, and prepare to make difficult choices surrounding where and what economic industries warrant development.


Climate Security in Focus is a blog series dedicated to exploring key elements of climate security that impact American interests both at home and abroad. The series aims to examine specific aspects of climate security issues in order to better understand the challenges, facilitate conversation, and generate ideas.