Paul's Note - September 11, 2020

Judging by the emails to my office over the last week, the issues on Wednesday’s council agenda that generated the most heat in our community were the extension of GPLET incentives and our declaration of a climate emergency. I’d like to talk a little about another item we discussed that ties into climate change and that touches on the very survival of Tucson as a city in the coming decades: a plan for what to do in a severe drought.

We’ve had a dismal monsoon season, so it would not surprise you to find that the Tucson basin is currently rated as in a short-term severe drought according to the state Department of Water Resources. Only the slivers of La Paz and Yuma Counties that hug the Colorado River are not currently rated as in drought conditions.  

The era of Tucson depending entirely on local rains replenishing our aquifer and keeping us supplied with drinking water was over decades ago. What we depend on now is snow in the Colorado Rockies. The water that comes from that melting snowpack is what eventually gets to the Colorado River, then the Central Arizona Project (a three hundred mile long pipeline and the biggest user of electricity in the state) and finally into your tap.

It hasn’t been snowing as much up there, and it can be seen in the water level in Lake Mead. Lake Mead is important because managers of the CAP use it to decide what users will get their allocations.

Earlier this year, Lake Mead was at 1090 feet. That’s a level they call tier zero, which still gives Tucson its full allocation. Arizona users first get hit at tier one, or 1075 feet. Agricultural users are the ones whose allocation gets cut at that level. Cities like Tucson have their allocation protected until the level gets to 1045, which is tier two.

Even though we are “safe” for now, there are projections that show us hitting the tier two mark soon. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has two projections. A projection using data from 1906 to 2016 says we have a 9% chance of getting to tier two by 2023. However, a projection using the last thirty years (one I think is more realistic, by the way) says we have a 23% chance.

Any catastrophe that we have a one in four chance of facing is something my colleagues and I think we need to prepare for.

As part of that, the council approved an update to our Drought Preparedness and Response Plan. The initial plan was passed back in 2006 under a mandate passed by the state legislature, and it was updated in 2012 and 2017. In addition to other updates, the council also had to make some changes to match up with Tucson Water’s federally mandated Drought Contingency Plan.

Even though we can do so much more, our community has done a lot to reduce our water usage and that’s done a lot to prepare us for this. Much of What the plan recommends at tier zero and tier one is accelerating things we are already doing: public education and conservation programs (including targeting water users that exceed guidelines), emphasis on maintaining and updating water facilities and equipment and mandating that city departments implement water conservation programs.

Hitting tier two is another matter. Tucson’s allocation of CAP will get cut at that point, meaning Tucson Water and the city would have to take more drastic measures. Fortunately, we’ve been conserving water and that’s enabled us to store a four-and-a-half year supply in Avra Valley. If we act now, we can prevent the draconian measures that some communities in California have had to implement. The plan includes audits for users that exceed normal usage. It also suggests a drought surcharge.

The plan only calls for consideration of the surcharge. Still, it’s something that we need to be ready for as a community. Such a surcharge would reflect the higher prices that would likely occur as users like farmers stop using CAP and the cities get charged more to maintain the system. As you know, changes to your water bill go through a public process, and that process would apply to any proposed surcharge.

Tier three, which I hope we avert, would mean a 10% cut to Tucson’s allocation. Our plan would implement restrictions on customers that don’t reduce their water use to follow guidelines. Additionally, the plan would curtail outdoor water use including household landscaping.

From conservation, rainwater harvesting, grey water to management of our water service area, we’ve built up resiliency in our system. We need to, however, do a lot more to reduce our water usage. This is not some far off thing that our grandchildren will have to deal with. This is right around the corner and we need to redouble our efforts as a community if we want the Tucson that we know and love will be here in the future.