From AZCentral.com (Joanna Allhands):
Opinion: A Tier 1 water shortage on Lake Mead might sound scary, but it’s not the problem we should be worrying about.
There’s a lot of freaking out about the first Tier 1 water shortage at Lake Mead, which is expected to be announced on Aug. 16.
There has been breathless coverage for weeks in the national press about how bad things are now for those of us who rely on the Colorado River.
But that’s the thing. A Tier 1 shortage is far from a crisis.
Oh, this level of shortage will be painful, especially for farmers in Pinal County who are losing their only source of renewable water. They have no option other than to turn back to groundwater, which already has dwindled to the point that it cannot meet the long-term demands of all Pinal users. Some farmers are already beginning to make tough choices about which fields to fallow and which of their most productive lands are worth saving.
But cities in metro Phoenix will not yet feel any ill effects of a Tier 1 shortage (and few will notice the impacts of a deeper Tier 2 shortage, a growing possibility for 2023). And those with the highest priority on-river water are even more insulated from pain, even if things get worse than that.
A Tier 1 shortage isn’t our problem now
Arizona has known for years that this day would come. We planned for it in a statewide implementation plan, which provides a complex web of temporary water supplies and compensation to help those who must shoulder these cuts. The plan gets progressively more painful, especially once we hit a Tier 3 shortage that will impact even the largest cities in metro Phoenix, but it’s all spelled out.
If anything, the measured progression of cuts provides a bit of certainty in the chaos of the hotter, drier, more unpredictable future we face.
So, while I know everyone will be talking about this first shortage because it’s new, and for those who haven’t been following the situation, reading the words “water shortage” will seem scary, forgive me if I view it as old hat.
The Tier 1 declaration isn’t our problem. It’s the other numbers contained in the reports that also will be released on Aug. 16, which have turned grim with a speed that has surprised even the experts. The upstream Lake Powell is dropping quickly, thanks to already low lake levels and near-record low runoff this year. The lower Powell falls, the less water Lake Mead gets.
That’s our problem.
It’s likely that we are in for multiple years of 7.48 million acre-feet releases, down from the 8.23 million acre-feet (or more) releases on which we have come to rely. This is consequential, considering that until now we’ve only had one 7.48 million acre-feet release in 2014, when Lake Mead was nowhere near shortage levels.
Lake levels never recovered from that lower release.
Less water from Lake Powell is driving the tank
And now Mead, which is V-shaped, is significantly lower in elevation – meaning it takes progressively less water to lower lake levels. Multiple years of 7.48 million acre-feet releases will cause lake levels to plummet (the forecast already says two in a row are likely, and that there’s a decent chance of them continuing through 2025).
In fact, the latest modeling suggests there may be nearly a 40% chance of Lake Mead reaching a Tier 3 shortage – the most severe for which we have planned – by 2025.
And if the projections hold, the states that rely on Mead could be meeting as soon as November to decide what other actions we can take (likely, it’ll be even more cuts) to keep the lake from falling below a critically low level of 1,020 feet of elevation. The modeling suggests that if we do nothing additional, the lake could drop to near 1,000 feet in a worst case by 2025.
Consider that. Arizona could take its worst-case 720,000 acre-feet of cuts in a Tier 3 shortage and still the lake could tank.
We must conserve – and by “we,” I don’t just mean Arizona. Demand certainly drives part of the equation for why Mead is dropping, which means we all need to use less. Permanently.
But so does supply, and if the lake could get 750,000 acre-feet less than usual for several years – or maybe from here on out, in an effort to keep Lake Powell from tanking – this can’t just fall on Arizona’s shoulders, even if we are the state with the junior-most water rights.
Whatever we do, it must be a shared sacrifice
The good news is that other basin states seem to recognize this, that if the lakes have any hope at sustainability, it’s going to require an additional shared sacrifice to get them there.
What that sacrifice looks like is anyone’s guess. Everyone knows it will be painful, which also will make it hard for everyone to swallow. The name of the game will be to choose actions that everyone can live with, not one that everyone likes.
Because we’ve entered a new era of shortage. This is our reality, our new normal – and, in fact, it probably won’t be long before we consider a Tier 1 shortage as a time of excess.
It can and probably will get worse from here, and yes, we’re planning for that, too. So that when that day arrives, we can say we’ve got this.
It’s going to hurt. But there is no need to freak out.
Reach Allhands at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.