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Arizona Water Managers Cause Tension Among River Users

The Colorado River is the lifeline for 40 million people in the West.

Sharing that water comes from years of carefully crafted agreements between seven states and Mexico.

At least … sometimes it’s an agreement. Sometimes, well, water is worth fighting for.

The latest tension over water in the West involves water agencies in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico calling out Arizona’s water agency, for doing what they say is “gaming the system.”

The river's two largest reservoirs - Lake Powell and Lake Mead - serve as a savings account for the upper and lower basins. When Lake Mead reaches a certain elevation, Lake Powell releases more water to prevent Lake Mead from going into shortage. 

The Central Arizona Project has found it beneficial to try and keep Lake Mead at the elevation that requires more pulls from Lake Powell. 

Upper basin water managers have said that's not good for the rest of the water users.

One of those agencies is Denver Water, where Jim Lochhead is the CEO.

Lochhead said the Central Arizona Project is manipulating its water orders, and turning conservation efforts on and off when it suits them. 

“Essentially, what they were doing was moving water off the system for their own benefit to the detriment of everyone else,” Lochhead explained.

Arizona water managers say it's if they conserve too much water in Lake Mead, and that extra water from Lake Powell goes away, they stand to lose the most should a first-ever shortage be declared.  

“I think that that might be a good strategy for the Central Arizona Project but for the sustainability for the river as a whole for everyone else it is essentially one party changing their demands for their own benefit,” Lochhead said.

With an ongoing persistent drought, banking on a wet year is a gamble. 

“The problem with [manipulating water orders] is that we’re in the midst of a drought this year and the reservoirs are in very low conditions and if we have another dry year next year like this year, we’re going to be in real trouble,” he said.

If 2019 is another dry year and Lake Powell does not get a large amount of runoff from the Rocky Mountains, Arizona would be the first to suffer.

Under the Colorado River agreement that controls how the river is distributed, if Lake Mead hits a certain level - a shortage is declared and the Secretary of the Interior can institute severe cuts in water distribution and Arizona is first on the cut list.

“It is kind of ironic that the Central Arizona Project would be manipulating their demands to pull more water when at the end of the day they are going to face the steepest cuts,” Lochhead said.

Las Vegas would also see cuts if a shortage is declared, but Lochhead said he believes Southern Nevada is much more ready for drought conditions and water cuts.

Lochhead would like Arizona water managers to sit down with other states and talk about a solution. He is hopeful they can keep the federal government out of the West's water woes but if the states can't cooperate federal intervention might be necessary.

“Absent cooperation, I think the unilateral action by the Secretary of the Interior is going to have to be necessary - potentially,” Lochhead said.

The Central Arizona Project declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued the following statement: 

"We are surprised and disappointed to have received a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission questioning CAWCD’s intentions in leaving water in Lake Mead. We have been reaching out to our partners in the Upper Basin, hoping to clarify apparent misunderstandings, and to facilitate in-person, collaborative discussions aimed at finding solutions that will benefit the communities and environment served by this mighty river. CAP has been and remains committed to DCP. In fact, since 2014, CAP and its partners have been voluntarily implementing DCP-like reductions, resulting in more than 850,000 acre feet in contributions to Lake Mead.  These contributions have come at a significant cost to CAP water users in terms of water and water rates. Together, we have been making a noticeable difference by voluntarily contributing water to Lake Mead with multiple partners in multiple programs, and avoiding shortages in 2016, 2017, 2018, and potential 2019 and 2020. We look forward to working together now with partners from throughout the Basin on these critically important issues."

Jim Lochhead, CEO, Denver Water

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.