Drying Lake Mead

The receding shore line of Lake Mead is seen in 2014. Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the largest man-made reservoirs in the country — are still at low levels despite a healthy snowpack in the Western mountains.

PHOENIX — Pinal County farmers may still face slight water reductions next year despite the healthy snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, officials say.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District board heard a Colorado River conditions update at its June 11 meeting. The update reported an excellent May in terms of Colorado River Basin run-off, yet board members underscored that still-half-full reservoirs point to the need for continued conservation.

As of Friday, the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, which includes Colorado and Utah, was listed at 1,329 percent above normal for this time of year.

The Drought Contingency Plan defines different “tiers” of shortage. While Lake Powell in northern Arizona and southern Utah is expected to rise as much as 50 feet this summer, Lake Mead will probably remain less than 1,090 feet in elevation, triggering a Tier Zero shortage.

“Under Tier Zero conditions, Arizona takes a reduction of 192,000 acre-feet in its annual Colorado River entitlement,” Suzanne Ticknor, assistant general manager at the Central Arizona Project, told KJZZ radio.

That assures that enough water will be left in Lake Mead to help slow its decline after 20 years of record drought on the over-allocated river.

An acre-foot of water can cover one acre of land with one foot of water, or 325,851 gallons. The EPA says the average person uses 88 gallons of water a day at home, which equates to 32,120 gallons a year.

Arizona’s reduced supply in Tier Zero will affect certain users of the Central Arizona Project canal system. There will be a slight reduction to some Pinal County farmers, and the pool of so-called “excess water” will be eliminated.

This year the Legislature allocated $20 million to Pinal County irrigation districts to drill more wells.

Brian Betcher, general manager of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, said the district’s well drilling program associated with mitigating the effects of a future shortage related to the Drought Contingency Plan is targeted to be prepared for shortage by 2023.

“This year’s great hydrology (snowpack) will definitely benefit the district probably for 2020 and 2022, but would not change the well drilling program,” he said.

This week Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema introduced legislation to improve dams and canals along the Colorado River and elsewhere.

McSally said in a press release that the Water Supply Infrastructure Rehabilitation and Utilization Act gives local operators of federally owned facilities the tools to maintain and improve aging water infrastructure in a timely manner. Eighty percent of the Bureau of Reclamation’s facilities are more than 50 years old and are in dire need of major upgrades or replacement costs.

Tom Davis, general manager of the Yuma County Water Users Association, said the bill will allow for improvements to Imperial Dam, which is the major diversion structure in the Colorado River system. The dam allows for the delivery of 6 million acre-feet of water annually to farms and communities in Arizona and Southern California.

“This structure is nearly 100 years old and requires expensive extraordinary maintenance to ensure it will continue to function properly and support the region’s economy for the next 100 years,” Davis said. “This legislation is absolutely necessary for those of us that are operational repayment entities to be able to afford these necessary improvements.”

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