Major issues must be addressed at the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, abbreviated as CAWCD. Shortage is the critical issue, but leads to issues in demand management, finances, replacement water, and customer service.
The really Big Issue that faces CAWCD is the continuing shortage on the Colorado River. CAWCD operates the Central Arizona Project canal to bring water into Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties from the Colorado River. But water levels are dropping in Lake Mead, and have already fallen below an elevation of 1,075 feet. Hitting this trigger level caused a declared shortage on the River on January 1, 2021. And the shortage is getting worse, much faster than most water experts had anticipated.
Arizona is now facing cuts in the amount of water flowing down the CAP canal. Farmers have felt the pain first, as irrigation water is cut back. In the next tier of shortage, which will begin January 1, 2023, all CAP irrigation water will be lost. Eventually, with further drops in Lake Mead water levels, cities and tribes will also face cuts in water deliveries as early as 2024. Because of its junior priority on the Colorado River, Arizona and the CAP canal are destined to take cuts first, while California experiences no losses until water level elevations drop below 1,030 ft.
Water level elevations on Lake Powell are even more critical than those on Lake Mead. If those elevations drop to a point just above 3,490 ft, the Bureau of Reclamation may shut down the eight penstocks that direct water to the hydroelectric generators at the base of the Glen Canyon Dam. The Bureau of Reclamation has already warned that it will protect the infrastructure at the dam by curtailing water releases to Lake Mead to stabilize water levels. Most people do not know that those eight penstocks are currently the sole method of moving water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Absent releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, water levels in Lake Mead will drop even faster, and far less water will be available to Arizona, Nevada, and even California. The entire Colorado River system of dams, supply, and deliveries could collapse within a few years. Water from the CAP canal is simply too vital to Arizona to allow that to happen. The economic consequences could be catastrophic.
Negotiating Demand Management
The seven Colorado River Basin states divided up the river a century ago, when flows were high (Mexico was added later, and Arizona--disappointed with its junior rights and small allotment--didn't sign until 1944). The river was over-allocated then, and now that flows are declining, cannot provide the set volumes of water promised in 1922. Managing demand such that water taken off the Colorado River does not exceed what is physically available is the only way to approach a dwindling resource. Unfortunately, the states cannot seem to sit down at the same table and set realistic restrictions on how much water each should have, given the actual volume available in a given year. Right now, Arizona is shouldering most of the load of cutting back in water usage, due to its junior rights. But this cannot continue; Arizona cannot do the heavy lifting alone. CAWCD must face the stiff challenge of helping Arizona negotiate with other states and the Bureau of Reclamation to establish a new and realistic set of criteria for annual water usage by the states. It is the only way to save the state.
CAWCD could face serious financial problems as deliveries decline. CAWCD has fixed costs each year, and pays those costs by totaling the amount and dividing by the number of acre-feet delivered. Thus, as the number of acre-feet of water delivered goes down, the amount charged per acre-feet must necessarily go up. The price of CAP water could get very high. Furthermore, CAWCD will be paying off the construction loan that Arizona took out from the Federal government to build the canal until 2044. That's a multi-million dollar bill each year. Capital charges are a major source of revenue for this expense. Cities pay capital charges based on the size of their allotments, but if deliveries cease, will city councils be willing to continue paying those hefty capital charges?
As CAP deliveries decline, there will be considerable pressure to find alternate sources of water to replace Colorado River water. Of all the potential sources of water that could replace, in part, curtailed deliveries of Colorado River water, direct potable reuse is the source that is ready to go. Every year municipal and private operators of wastewater treatment plants reclaim thousands of acre-feet of water. Much of it is Class A+, currently suitable for almost every use except drinking water. Much of the remainder is Class B, which has more restrictions. But the step up in treatment technology from Class B to Class A+ is hardly impossible, and with the passage of the new funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (not to mention the Federal billions built into the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act), the money is there now to do the upgrades.
Reclaimed water now meets a variety of non-potable needs. Some of it goes to landscaping, to golf courses, homeowner association green spaces, washing city vehicles, and other purposes. Much of it goes into the ground at Underground Storage Facilities (USFs), to be recovered later in time of need. None goes back into the treatment plants to be mixed with other sources and then delivered to customers for potable use. Yet Class A+ water is safe to drink—you can even brew beer with it.
The Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) years ago wrote rules for direct potable reuse. However, no program to administer this readily available source of water was set up. But in the last legislative session, ADEQ was authorized to create a regulatory program for direct potable reuse. ADEQ is pursuing this mandate. Reclaimed water will always be available as long as people wash clothes and dishes, take overly long showers, and go to the bathroom. Yes, only water used inside the house can be reclaimed, as outside uses never enter the wastewater system, but inside use is about 30% of the total residential use. That’s a lot, and it is a constant supply. Some industrial and commercial entities are even better are re-using their wastewater, Intel for example.
Desalination is another concept that is floating around. It works. The Israelis have developed efficient and cost-effective desalination technologies, and they are building plants in coastal areas all around the world, even in California. Desalination of ocean water is becoming a major supply for many cities situated between the sea and the desert. It is a good and workable concept, but is it right for Arizona?
Arizona has no coastline. Advocates propose building pipelines from the Sea of Cortez to the CAP three-county service area, although the proposed location of the plant is not totally clear. Drawbacks include the cost and time needed for pipeline construction, energy requirements to get the water from sea level to elevations within the service area, and brine disposal.
There may be a less expensive route to desalination. Arizona has areas where groundwater is brackish, and not suitable for any use. Buckeye, for example, is located essentially at the drainpipe for the entire Salt River Valley. Depth to groundwater is often only ten feet. Brackish groundwater has been accumulating for millions of years. Yet the total dissolved solids content of that groundwater is still a small percentage of the salinity of seawater. Would it not be cheaper to construct a desalination plant right over the source water? Certainly the power costs would be less, and permitting would be quicker, leaving only the brine disposal problem. And nearby is the Luke salt dome, into which brine could be injected without significant transport costs. It seems possible that enough brackish water could be treated to supply much of the West Valley, replacing lost CAP water.
ADEQ and ADWR could undertake hydrologic studies to delineate areas of brackish groundwater and the feasibility of on-site desalination. Substantial volumes of brackish groundwater may be defined as suitable for desalination, at a much-reduced cost. It won’t work forever—the sea is vast, but eventually areas of brackish groundwater would be depleted—but it could render useful a resource which now sits wasted.
For years, reclaimed and CAP water have been stored underground at USFs, in preparation for the day when CAP deliveries would not be sufficient for municipal and tribal needs. That day is here. The Arizona Water Bank has stored some 3.76 maf to firm up subcontracts for CAP water. Far-sighted cities and tribes have also been storing water for their own protection. It is time to construct wells to recover that stored water. It won’t last forever, but it may tide the three-county service area over this period of curtailment to a new understanding of how much water will be available from the canal. Stored water must now be put to use.
CAWCD is a wholesaler. They operate the Central Arizona Canal in order to deliver Colorado River water to the sub-contractors, who are the water retailers. Cities provide water to their residents, irrigation districts send water to their farmers (or they did, until irrigation water was cut), and tribes use their water for a variety of purposes. The problem is that for Colorado River water, CAWCD is the only wholesaler in the state— and they often act like it.
Since 2007, I have seen many instances when CAWCD took unexpected actions, and claimed it was in the best interest of the customer. All too often, the customer didn’t see it that way. I know that feeling, because for over a decade I worked at the City of Peoria, and often was caught unawares by a surprise move by CAWCD that impacted some City initiative or program.
A few years ago, CAWCD concluded a laudatory effort to address issues of poor customer service, and failure to be open and transparent. A number of actions were identified that may improve the relationship between CAWCD and its sub-contractors. But in truth, what is needed is a massive shift in attitude, from “we know best” to “the customer knows best their own needs.” This will require Board members who have been in the role of customer, have received the short end of the stick, and will carefully monitor any effort that doesn’t take into account the effect on the customer.