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Severe Water Cuts Are Coming for Arizona. The Rest of the Southwest Is Next.

The restrictions are essential to keep the states from running dry, but vulnerable communities have already suffered from water scarcity for years.

A woman fills water jugs at a public tap.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A member of the Navajo Nation fills water jugs at a public tap in New Mexico.

Two months ago, researchers at Utah State University estimated that Arizona, California, and Nevada would collectively have to cut their intake of Colorado River water by 40 percent over the next three decades due to drought. At a public meeting last Thursday, the Arizona Department of Water Resources confirmed the warnings: The cutbacks are coming, and soon.

Arizona will serve as a testing ground for how seriously and how quickly the states and tribal nations in the upper and lower Colorado River basins can tackle the water crisis. This is because, as part of the deal that led to the creation of the Central Arizona Project, or CAP—the giant canal that runs from Phoenix to Tucson—Arizona agreed to be first in line when drought-induced water cuts were needed. And given the current status of the Lake Mead reservoir, where water levels have dipped below 40 percent capacity due to reduced snowpack upstream, those cuts will need to be in place as early as next year, according to KJZZ. 

Both New Mexico and Nevada are expected to implement similar measures before long, with California potentially staring down the same fate. But Arizona will face some of the first and steepest cuts. And while it will be absolutely necessary for the people of Phoenix and the state’s other major cities to keep their water use levels down, it will be equally important to provide those who entered the drought with unreliable access to clean water with a viable path to drinkable, running water—not just more water bottles and buckets. To put it another way: In crafting this massive response to what is certainly an all-hands-on-deck crisis, the responsible American government agencies and corporations must be held accountable for simultaneously cleaning up the ones they’ve already caused. 

According to the tentative timeline offered by Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, the first half of 2022 will consist of engagement and consultation sessions with all stakeholders in the state—a list including tribal nations, state government leaders, municipal and local representatives, and Central Arizona farming groups, among others. Then, by the final quarter of the year, around October, the agreed-upon mitigation efforts will actually be put into practice.

Arizona Republic’s Ian James reported Friday that Arizona is anticipating a cutback of 512,000 acre-feet, or roughly 20 percent of its annual entitlement, next year. Water officials at Thursday’s meeting said that as of now, they’re hopeful that the multistate and tribal nation Drought Contingency Plan signed in 2019 will guide them for at least the next five years. Under that plan, the signees are currently operating at the initial Tier Zero levels; assuming the continuance of the drought and shrinking Lake Mead supplies, the region is expected to reach Tier One levels next year, triggering the heightened round of mitigation efforts, including the 20 percent cut for Arizona.

As things currently stand, state officials are not predicting the conservation measures will begin on the extreme end. “You’re not going to see a request for people in their homes to only shower twice a week,” Tom Buschatzke, director of Water Resources, told KJZZ. “We’re not in that situation, this is not a crisis at that level.”

And that might well be true: If the state and other stakeholders can convince high-usage areas like Phoenix and the aforementioned agricultural operations to limit their usage even marginally, then those folks might just enter 2023 with a more hopeful vision of what future usage can look like, at least in the short-term future.

One thing to keep in mind, though, as all of these mitigation efforts, water compacts, and new routines are rolled out, is how they will address the existing infrastructural inequalities that defined water dispersement in the West long before Lake Mead’s bathtub rings started to grow. Namely, for many of the 30 tribal nations in the full basin, a question ostensibly about resource management and nation-to-nation consultation has also become one of  ensuring equity and justice. 

Last week, Inside Climate News published a report probing how water insecurity stood out as one of the defining issues in Indian Country during the coronavirus pandemic. Swaths of Native families and communities living on their sovereign lands were systemically denied access to running water due to the federal government’s long-standing attempts to route water and the accompanying infrastructure away from reservations. CAP, for instance, is both a stunning technical achievement and a product of tribal nations being almost wholly ignored. When designing CAP, the state chose to leave Hopi and Navajo communities in the northern parts of the state with increasingly dried-out springs and aquifers, in favor of flooding the desert metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson with enough water to justify and sustain rapid population growth. Speaking with Climate News, University of New Mexico’s John Fleck deemed the water deals and infrastructure of the past century “a result of racist colonialism.” 

The affected tribal nations have made strides since then, particularly in the past decade, as they’ve sought to use their senior water rights status, granted to governments and companies with long-standing claims, to guarantee themselves a spot at the table. In the case of the crucial Drought Contingency Plan, the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community both played central roles in ensuring enough water would be left in Lake Mead, something that CAP’s general manager went out of their way to acknowledge at Thursday’s meeting. That same day, the Navajo Nation’s treaty-guaranteed Colorado River water rights were upheld by the Ninth Circuit, giving the nation a stronger foothold in future compact negotiations. 

There are now initiatives underway, such as the federal Interior Department’s recently announced Drought Relief Working Group and the White House Council on Native American Affairs, that will seek to give these communities an elevated voice in drought and climate crisis negotiations, as well as plan drafting, over the coming years. Water use in the West is filled with bizarre stories of inequity—Nestlé, for example, getting caught going 25 times over its water allotment in California. 

Cuts have never been as simple as lowering everyone’s water usage equally across the board. To actually be effective, these efforts have to take into account the communities that need and deserve to be brought up to level, while regulating those who have been siphoning too much. There’s no perfect ending here, because these negotiations are a jagged affair. But there remains a chance at least to do right by those who need it most.