What they may not realize is that the oasis they’re enjoying in the desert is entering uncharted territory, with significant ramifications for millions across the Southwest in the years to come.
Lake Mead and nearby Lake Powell — the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River — have drained at an alarming rate. Lake Mead has fallen more than 139 feet since January of 2000.
“It’s a pretty awful year,” said Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, a massive, 336-mile canal and pipeline system that carries Colorado River water to Phoenix, Tucson and farms and towns in between. “Last year wasn’t so bad as far as the snowpack went, but with the higher temperatures and drier soils that we’re still experiencing this year, we’re seeing even less runoff that actually makes it into the waterways and in the reservoirs.”
Who would the shortage affect?
With the level of Lake Mead dipping below 1,075 feet on Tuesday and forecast to drop further, it is nearly certain that the Bureau of Reclamation will declare a Tier 1 shortage later this summer.
The looming water cuts will have the greatest impact in Arizona.
California’s water deliveries would not be impacted in a Tier 1 shortage, according to the drought contingency plan.
Water officials in Arizona say that while the falling water levels and future projections are concerning, the state is prepared to absorb the cuts.
“We’re concerned … but we’ve allowed for something like this to happen, and as a matter of fact, keep on happening,” Cooke said. “Hopefully it doesn’t but if it does, we’re prepared.”
What happens if Lake Mead sinks further?
In the event of a Tier 2 shortage — which the USBR projects could happen as soon as late 2022 — the cuts would impact some cities and tribes in Arizona that receive water from the Central Arizona Project canal.
“I’m definitely concerned that the raw projections continue to go downward and that we are heading towards potentially a Tier 2 [shortage] in 2023,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.