In January of this year, the New York Times wrote an article about the water situation in Rio Verde. The focus of the article was to point out the impact decades of drought in the southwest has had on the region and the real-life implications the water shortage was having on residents of Rio Verde, a small enclave north and east of Scottsdale. What’s lost in the national narrative concerning the drought and its effects on Phoenix is that Arizona is actually very well positioned as it pertains to water.
This is not to diminish what is happening in Rio Verde. Rio Verde indeed faces the challenge of not being connected to a municipal water supply and, relative to metro Phoenix, it is a rural area which will need to come up with dynamic solutions. However, finding water in rural locations throughout Arizona is not a new challenge. Rio Verde will likely find a solution either by drilling new wells, finding a new partner to truck in water or, alternatively, developing its own municipal water system.
The Rio Verde story serves as a not so gentle reminder that water is life, it is precious, and it holds great value in Arizona. Ensuring water availability in Arizona has taken lots of planning. The state has placed such an emphasis on water, it has put in place many safeguards over the last century to help prevent a catastrophic water shortage. Below, we are going to explore some of those safeguards and help residents better understand the sources and allocations of water throughout the state.
We are all now keenly aware of the rapidly dropping water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These lakes are of tremendous importance as it relates to Arizona’s water and power supplies. In 1922, the Colorado river water was allocated in an agreement amongst the seven states that share the Colorado River basin. As a result of that agreement, Arizona received 2.8-million-acre feet per year. (An acre foot of water is enough to supply three average households per year). Most of this water goes to agriculture located around the state and particularly to farms near Yuma.
The rest of the Colorado River water flows through a series of canals constructed over a 20 year period from 1968 to 1988 called the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The canals feed Maricopa County (Phoenix), Pinal County and Pima County (Tucson). As it relates to Phoenix, this water is either stored in Lake Pleasant, is banked in underground aquafers or is carried further to the Salt River Project for distribution around the city.
The Salt River Project (SRP) is a series of dams and reservoirs that capture water from major mountain watersheds to the north and east of Phoenix. The water mostly flows through the Verde and Salt Rivers. Along the Verde River you will find the Horseshoe and Bartlett Dams that create reservoirs with the same namesakes. The Verde River then flows out of Bartlett and eventually meets the Salt River.
Along the Salt River you will find Lake Roosevelt, the largest dam and lake in the SRP, Horse Mesa Dam/Apache Lake, Mormon Flat Dam/Canyon Lake & closest to Phoenix is Stewart Mountain Dam/Saguaro Lake. Incredibly, all of the lakes in the SRP system as of April 2023, sit between 90 and 100% full. This is the equivalent of 2.2-million-acre feet of water. The SRP watershed will continue to fill during the rest of the spring melt and the reservoirs are in the process of releasing water in anticipation of this. Suffice to say, for the rest of 2023 there should be plenty of water in the SRP system.
The water that goes into the SRP system, either from the Verde and Salt Rivers or from CAP, is then distributed to the Phoenix Metro area via a series of canals. The Arizona canal takes water to the central and northern portions of the valley while the Southern canal takes water to the southern and eastern portions of the valley. Often these end up in water treatment plants for distribution to the customer, but there are also irrigation canals for agriculture.
Beyond the robust above ground water distribution system, Arizona has also made a point to replenish its aquifers. Along the CAP system, six different recharge stations have been constructed. These are essentially man-made lakes where water is allowed to percolate back into the soil and “recharge” the aquifers below. SRP has done something similar, where they have worked with various municipalities to bank water in their aquifers. All told, Arizona has stored around three trillion gallons of water underground for future use.
A poignant example of this forward thinking as it relates recharging and banking water in aquifers can be found in the City of Scottsdale. In the early 90s, the Reclaimed Water Distribution System (RWDS) was conceived. “The RWDS is a complex system of pipelines, booster pump stations and reclaimed and advanced water treatment facilities capable of delivering 20 million gallons a day of non-potable water for turf irrigation specifically to RWDS member clubs.” The idea was for the 13 golf courses in north Scottsdale who were pumping groundwater to water their golf courses to instead pivot to reclaimed water. To accomplish this, the City of Scottsdale in conjunction with these golf courses agreed to a joint spend on pipelines and pumping stations that would provide the golf courses water. In exchange, the city then had the infrastructure to treat & move water more efficiently in addition to the ability to take excess water, not used by the golf courses, and bank it in their aquafers.
A final piece of the water puzzle in Arizona is agriculture. Arizona alone is responsible for 90% of United States’ lettuce supply during winter months. It is a $23 billion dollar industry that exports more than 120 different fruits and vegetables - the second largest exporter of produce in the country. We would be remiss to forget about agriculture as an industry which is critical not only for national produce but locally is a major part of the economy. There has been talk of cutting agriculture’s water rights first as a way of keeping water in Lake Mead. Lest we forget, cutting that water may have dramatic ripple effects nationwide.
Arizona’s water supply is diverse and sustainable. The state is fortunate to have had forward thinkers that planned for potential water shortages. Currently, 41% of the state’s water comes from groundwater, 36% from CAP water, 18% from in-state rivers (mostly SRP) and 5% from reclaimed water. This diversity in source shall help the state navigate the foreseeable future and consistently provide residents with water on demand. Incredibly, Arizona uses about the same amount of water now as we did in 1957, despite rapid population growth since then. A clear sign of effective water management and conservation at the city levels. This is not to say that we should disregard water – it is precious and finite. However, concerns about water availability in Arizona are somewhat overblown. Thanks to the efforts of many visionaries of the past, the water for our future appears to be assured.