The Central Arizona Project celebrates its 50th Anniversary while facing a drought that may impact 80 percent of the population.
It’s no secret that Arizona and California often don’t see eye-to-eye, as evidenced by the enmity the Diamondbacks and Suns have for the Dodgers and Lakers. But it’s when the two states haggle over water that things can turn nasty. Tempers frayed so badly about the Colorado River in 1934 that Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur ordered armed National Guard troops ferried across the river to stop California’s construction on Parker Dam.
Decades of bad hydrologic vibes became water under the bridge when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Colorado River Basin Project Act in 1968. “I have a feeling of freedom this morning when I see California and Arizona sitting there, arm-in-arm, smiling with each other,” Johnson said. The legislation funded the Central Arizona Project, a massive plumbing network that provides water to tribes, cities, irrigation districts and recharge projects in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties. The 336-mile aqueduct, which can be seen from outer space, was completed in 1994 at a cost of $4 billion. But it came with a catch: Colorado River shortages would impact Arizona before California.
That day may soon arrive. After two decades of drought, a new shortfall looms, and Arizona is again negotiating with California while hoping for a snowy winter in the Rockies to avoid cutbacks. The drought arrives just as CAP celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Water rights to the Colorado River have long been a contentious and complicated issue. The states that contribute to its flow – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – have made competing claims since the early 1900s. After five years of negotiations, the Colorado River Compact was hammered out in 1922. It divided the river into Upper Basin and Lower Basin states, with each basin given rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually (an acre-foot of water can supply three households for a year). Arizona was granted 2.8 million, with Lower Basin states California and Nevada awarded 4.4 million and 0.3 million, respectively.
The Arizona Legislature threw cold water on the compact. Opponents said Arizona deserved superior rights because, for nearly half its length, the river flowed through or along its boundaries. Arizona signed in 1944. The first bill to authorize the CAP in Congress was introduced by Arizona senators Carl Hayden and Ernest McFarland in 1946. Four years later, a bill passed the Senate but not the House. The CAP would take “blood, sweat, work, grit, fight and compromise by Arizonans focused on knowing what they wanted and be willing to battle two decades for it,” says Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner.
The conflict resulted in the lawsuit Arizona v. California in 1956. The U.S. Supreme Court, eight years later, handed down a decision that mostly favored Arizona and resulted in new Congressional authorization attempts for CAP. After numerous amendments, CAP legislation was approved in 1968, shepherded by Arizona statesmen Hayden, John Rhodes, Paul Fannin, Stewart Udall and Morris Udall.
To manage the nation’s most expensive water system, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District was organized in 1971. It maintains and delivers CAP’s 1.5 million acre-feet of water (more than half of Arizona’s total Colorado River allotment), and repays $1.65 billion of the project’s cost. Two years later, construction started on the intake for Colorado River water, the Havasu Pumping Plant at Lake Havasu. CAP water was first delivered to the Harquahala Valley Irrigation District west of Phoenix in 1985, and to Tucson in 1993.
The CAP aqueduct diverts nearly 500 billion gallons of water annually. Massive pumps lift water more than 2,900 vertical feet during the journey. “The flow is like seeing 3,000 basketballs rolling by every second,” Marcus Shapiro, CAP water systems supervisor, says. This water has contributed $2 trillion to the Arizona economy over the past 30 years and is divided among Native American tribes (35 percent), municipalities and industrial use (33 percent), agriculture (26 percent), and underground recharge (6 percent).
Some sections of the CAP are almost 45 years old, so system maintenance is critical. “A lot of our suppliers who we obtained our initial equipment from aren’t even in business, or they don’t manufacture the products anymore,” Gordon Myers, CAP central shop supervisor, says. Myers’ shop overcomes this challenge by reverse-engineering parts.
One problem system maintenance can’t fix is pervasive drought, as evidenced by the white, calcium-carbonate bathtub ring around Lake Mead. If lake levels are forecast to decline below 1,075 feet, USBR will declare a shortage that will reduce CAP’s water supply. That’s what CAP general manager Ted Cooke’s water aerobics have so far avoided. “Agreements and conservation programs have been put in place that has kept us out of declared shortages in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019,” says Cooke. Mother Nature’s wrath, however, appears to have outlasted Cooke’s bag of tricks, and altering the original compact between the seven states – which hardly seems democratic anymore, with the combined populations of the Lower Basin states more than four times the Upper Basin states – is not likely in the short term.
“It’s more likely than not that the Colorado River will have its first shortage declaration in 2020,” Burman says. CAP could initially lose 20 percent of its supply, which would impact lower priority users such as the Arizona Water Banking Authority, which uses the water to recharge groundwater aquifers, and farmers in Central Arizona. But Cooke, who co-chairs the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan, is working to cajole tribal and city users to give up a little agua voluntarily. “We have to find a way to share the pain for the benefit of everyone,” Cooke says.
Arizona, this time with its water pistol holstered, is also working with its old nemesis, California, to reduce its use voluntarily. “We’ve had decades of wrangling over the Colorado River, but we share a common enemy in the drought and found a way to come together as partners,” Cooke says. “It’s a lot more gratifying to do that, as there’s not a lot of Colorado River to fight over.”
Still, Arizona might be in for a rough ride as studies have projected the river’s flow could decrease 35 percent this century. Cooke believes we’re up for the challenge. “We’re very good in Arizona, as consumers and those who manage the resource, about dealing with thorny, seemingly impossible water-related challenges,” he says. “We haven’t failed yet, and we’re not going to fail now. The Drought Contingency Plan will be a message to the rest of the world that Arizona is open for business, that there’s enough water to do what we need to do.”
More Arizona Milestone Anniversaries
125 Years – Salvation Army, helping the needy in Arizona since 1893.
100 Years – Rock Springs Cafe, slinging pie since 1918.
80 Years – Arizona Snowbowl, slopes for shredding since 1938.
60 Years – Pets on Parade, finding homes for our furry friends since 1958.
50 Years – KNIX, broadcasting love and heartbreak with a twang since 1968.
40 Years – ASU and UA, chasing roses in the PAC-10 (now PAC-12) since 1978.
40 Years – Pascua Yaqui tribe, celebrating recognition by the feds in 1978.
35 Years – Phoenix Children’s Hospital, giving kids hope since 1983.