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Arizona positioned to take on biggest cuts in Colorado River supply

Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, is shown on Aug. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Water officials in Arizona say they are prepared to lose about one-fifth of the water the state gets from the Colorado River in what could be the first federally declared shortage in the river that supplies millions of people in the U.S. West and Mexico.

Arizona stands to lose more than any other state in the Colorado River basin that also takes in parts of Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and California. That’s because Arizona agreed long ago to be the first in line for cuts in exchange for federal funding for a canal system to deliver the water to Arizona’s major metropolitan areas.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project have said the anticipated reductions will be painful but the state has prepared for a shortage through conservation, water banking, partnerships and other efforts. They are expected to expand on the situation in a public presentation Thursday.

The brunt of the cuts in Arizona will be felt among farmers in central Arizona’s Pinal County who already have been fallowing more land and improving wells to draw upon groundwater. Most farms there are family farms that are among the state’s top producers of cotton, barley, wheat and alfalfa.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projected earlier this month that Lake Mead, which delivers water to Arizona, will fall below 1,075 feet for the first time in June 2021.

If the lake remains below that level in August when the bureau issues its official projection for 2022, Arizona and Nevada will lose water.

The two states already voluntarily have given up water under a separate drought contingency plan.

The voluntary and mandatory Tier 1 cuts mean Arizona will lose 18% of its Colorado River supply, or 512,000 acre-feet of water. The amount represents 30% of the water that goes to the Central Arizona Project, which manages the canal system and had made excess water available for farmers.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s predictions aren’t surprising. They come at a time when temperatures are rising and drought has tightened its grip on the U.S. Southwest, increasingly draining Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest man-made reservoirs in the U.S., to their lowest levels since they were filled.

“It’s important that everyone who lives in the desert worry to some degree, but I don’t think they need to panic,” said Rhett Larson, an associate professor at Arizona State University and expert on water law and policy.

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