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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Diem

Tier 1 shortage declared on the Colorado River for the first time in history

In the midst of Arizona’s 26th year of long-term drought, a Tier 1 shortage was declared for the first time ever on the Colorado River, which accounts for roughly 36% of Arizona’s water supply.

The shortage, set to start in 2022, means Arizona will see a reduction in its water supply from the Colorado River decreased by nearly 18%. As of right now, Central Arizona Agriculture will face the biggest loss, losing 65% of the water it receives through Central Arizona Project (CAP), according to a CAP report.

According to a University of Arizona study, Central Arizona agriculture, specifically, Pinal County accounts for 45% of Arizona’s cattle sales, 42% of cotton, 39% of milk and 22% of Arizona’s other crop sales. “Pinal County ranks in the top 2% of all U.S. counties in the total value of agricultural sales and the top 1% in cotton and cottonseed sales,” the U of A analysis said.

The huge cutbacks Central Arizona agriculture is facing will impact Arizona families’ access to local groceries.

Chelsea McGuire, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation comes from a farm family and said that “half of that industry’s water supply is now gone, and it leaves [farmers] trying to decide how to sustain their businesses, and grow the food and fiber that Arizona’s families rely on, with only half of the most essential input they have,” McGuire said.

Arizonans might not notice the cost of this reduction right away, but the locally-grown food we rely on will start to get more and more expensive.

George Frisvold, a professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in agriculture, said, “everything’s a lot more expensive now because this cutoff,” he said in an Arizona360 interview. “I think that’s what makes agriculture vulnerable is because people take it for granted.”

With reduced access to water for Arizona’s agriculture industry, the economy will also suffer. The Arizona Farm Bureau said that the industry contributes $23 billion to the economy, which will lessen as water levels diminish.

As of 2022, municipalities will not see any restrictions on water usage, but as the water levels dwindle, more and more groups of people will be affected.

Lake Mead, the U.S.’s largest reservoir, supplies water to over 40 million people and provides nearly 40% of Arizona’s water supply. For Lake Mead, a Tier 1 shortage means its surface elevation has reached 1,075 feet above sea level compared to 1,229 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Bureau of Reclamation stated, “the October projections indicate Lake Mead will be at elevation 1,050.63 feet at the end of calendar year 2022, less than one foot above the Tier 2 shortage elevation threshold of 1,050 feet.”

A Tier 2 shortage is split into two levels, one that will occur at 1,050 feet below sea level and the other at 1,045 feet. The two levels are split to ease the cuts that will be required statewide. Recent analysis by the Bureau of Reclamation indicates approximately a 16% chance a Tier 2 shortage will occur in 2023.

A Tier 2 shortage means that not only agriculture will face cuts, but some CAP municipalities and tribes will also start to face reductions in water supply.

“Given the recent intensification of the drought, and the effects of climate change, it is likely there will be deeper levels of shortage in the next few years. This could impact the CAP water currently available to some central Arizona municipalities and tribes,” DeEtte Person​, communications strategist for Central Arizona Project, said.

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