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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

The city of Phoenix outlined how it will voluntarily contribute water to a regional plan to shore up the country’s largest reservoir that delivers Colorado River water to three states and Mexico.

The city joins tribes with the announcement.

“We just recently signed a conservation agreement in Las Vegas and this was during the Colorado River Water Users Association where we agreed to put a significant amount of water up in Lake Mead to protect the crashing of the elevation levels,” Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis told Indian Country Today.

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

In December, Colorado River water users gathered for a conference in Las Vegas to discuss the water future in the west. Multiple water agencies and tribes signed the “500+ Plan”.

The Phoenix City Council voted unanimously in January to enter into an agreement with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. As part of the “500+ Plan,” the district will pay Phoenix more than $4 million to conserve just under 16,000 acre feet of water.

The entire “500+ Plan” will cost $200 million and is not part of the Drought Contingency Plan. It is a voluntary water reduction measure brought on by increasing strains on the Colorado River’s system.

The strained river has been over-allocated since settlers first began stealing land in the West and the situation has become dire in the last few years.

Developers with insatiable, unchecked appetites for growth, coupled with climate change, fuel the worsening drought.

Arizona is one of the top states with the fastest growing population, the latest U.S. Census revealed. However, the agricultural industry is responsible for roughly 80 percent of water consumption in Arizona.

Lewis says there’s a need for new water management decisions and policies and the tribe wants to model good behavior for other communities to follow.

(Related: Tribal leaders voice concerns about water, voting, COVID)

“We are leading by example, being good stewards,” Lewis said. “Water is a precious finite supply and we have to respect that.”

The river cannot provide seven states the water they were promised a century ago because of less snow, warmer temperatures, water lost to evaporation, lax water laws and greedy industries.

Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-largest city, is among entities in the river’s lower basin that are part of the “500+ Plan” meant to delay further mandatory shortages. All pieces of the plan haven’t been finalized, but farmers and tribes are expected to play a big role.

The Colorado River serves more than 40 million people in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Wyoming, Utah and Mexico. Lake Mead has not been at this critically low level since it was first filled.

WHAT IS THE 500 + PLAN?

The plan provides funding for states in the lower Colorado River basin — Arizona, Nevada and California — plus the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to find ways to leave 500,000 acre feet in Lake Mead over the next two years.

The risk of not meeting the goal would make the lake dropping further inevitable, absent much precipitation, leading to more painful mandatory water cuts.

The plan is projected to boost the water level of Lake Mead by about 16 feet (4.8 meters). The reservoir straddles the Nevada-Arizona border.

Water managers want to keep the lake from falling to 1,020 feet (311 meters) above sea level, the point at which they believe that the reservoir – with just one more dry year – could hit 950 feet (289 meters) and no longer have the capacity to deliver water to Arizona, California and Mexico.

Nevada has an extra layer of water security with a pipeline it built years ago to draw water below that level.

LakeMead-JE-2-2000

Water users crafted the “500+ Plan” within months to create more certainty in the Colorado River supply.

WHO IS CONTRIBUTING WATER?

The plan anticipates Arizona contributing 223,000 acre feet and California 215,000 acre feet. An acre-foot of water is enough to serve 2-3 households annually.

In Arizona, Phoenix and the neighboring cities of Glendale, Scottsdale and Tempe, irrigation districts, water agencies, state entities and others have said they’ll chip in.

The Metropolitan Water District in California will work through existing partnerships with irrigation districts and seek new ways to conserve water, said Colorado River resources manager Bill Hasencamp.

The district recently signed an agreement with the Quechan Tribe along the Arizona-California to pay farmers and the tribe not to plant crops in the hotter months when water use is highest.

That could leave 6,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead a year for two years, Hasencamp said.

“Yeah, it’s a small piece but an important piece of this plan that’s needed to make the Colorado River sustainable,” Hasencamp said.

Nevada will contribute money because it doesn’t have water to give, said Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Bronson Mack. The Colorado River supplies southern Nevada with 90 percent of its water.

“We’re already pretty tight as it is with 300,000 acre feet,” Mack said.

The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to contribute about 62,000 acre feet.

Tribes will be the biggest players in the plan because they tend to have larger and more secure rights to water that isn’t fully being used. The Colorado River Indian Tribe also signed on to the “500+ Plan”.

“We see this as a win-win for everybody because we have solutions, we can offer solutions, we can offer ways to save the river,” said Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores. “I’m glad that others are looking at tribes in that way, that we can be an asset and not calling on us at the last minute.”

WHO IS FUNDING THE PLAN?

The states are required to put up $100 million, and the federal government will match that amount for a total of $200 million.

Phoenix will receive nearly $4.2 million for the 15,977 acre feet it is contributing, which works out to $260 an acre foot. The city will leave that water in Lake Mead rather than store it underground near Tucson as it had planned, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water resource management adviser.

Phoenix will use the money for rebate programs for residents to switch to low-flow toilets, smart irrigation control systems and improving the efficiency of cooling towers, Campbell said.

The Metropolitan Water District will pay up to $1.6 million to farmers on the Fort Yuma reservation and the Quechan Tribe to leave fields dry.

The tribe’s water counsel, Jay Weiner, said the tribe is gauging interest among farmers.

“It’s really a piece of Quechan trying to be as entrepreneurial as possible, figuring out ways that it can continue to benefit from its water rights for the good of the tribe and its members,” he said.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will lose water this year in the first federally declared water shortage. In Arizona, that reduction largely falls on Pinal County farmers who plan to cut the acreage they farm and increasingly rely on groundwater.

The Colorado River basin states will start negotiating soon on a new set of guidelines to replace the current ones that expire in 2026.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream on the Arizona-Utah border haven’t been full in more than 20 years. As they fall, it impacts water deliveries, hydropower and recreation at the popular tourist spots.

Lake Mead was at 1,066 feet (324.9 meters) this week, or about 34 percent full. Lake Powell was at 3536 feet (1,077 meters), or 27 percent full.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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