Water Priorities Are Tricky!
When it comes to the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928, the order of the words used in the bill established the Hoover Dam priorities that the Bureau of Reclamation would codify into law.
Hoover Dam is a civil engineering marvel that captures water in the Spring for use year-round on behalf of 25 million people in the Southwest. At full capacity, it also provides enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes.
In the early years, supply exceeded demand, allowing California to overindulge on the excesses, creating an expectation of availability. Development in the Upper Basin (primarily Glen Canyon Dam) shrank the Lower Basin supply, but as long as Arizona couldn’t take their full allocation, California could continue to indulge.
The cost of obtaining access to Arizona’s full allocation was to agree to a junior appropriator status so California would not block approval of the Central Arizona Project. I don’t think anyone believed that the Colorado River Basin would go through 20+plus years of drought, especially in Arizona. But today Lake Mead sits at 36% capacity and Powell at 33%.
The Ancillary Effects of Reduced Water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell
While everyone in the West is keenly aware that the water supplies in Lake Mead and Powell are shrinking, most don’t comprehend the ancillary effects this has on the region.
Some would likely argue that the persistent drought has caused entities to place water storage above irrigation, but power remains at the bottom of the priority list. In fact, due to the sense of urgency, power users weren’t even in the room when the Drought Contingency Plan was negotiated. If they were, we could have argued that as the Ag pool goes away, there will be more of a dependence on groundwater. Extracting groundwater requires a lot of energy, and the greater the lift, the more power this requires.
The Arizona Power Authority (APA) has made supporting Arizona agriculture a priority since its inception. When the Drought Contingency Plan was first proposed, the APA began working on the impacts the drought would have on its customers.
As we move into Tier 1 shortage this year (with the real potential of reaching Tier 2 shortage by 2023), we are gaining clarity on how the decisions made in the past will impact us going forward. For Water Year 2022, the Arizona Power Authority is projecting a 9.7% loss of energy and a 15% loss of capacity over 2021 numbers. We are exploring ways to offset a potential rate increase of 9.5% next year. If the current drought continues, long-term projections are that energy loss will approach 37% by 2026.
It is a similar situation with the Colorado River Storage Project (Glen Canyon Dam and associated dams), with future energy estimates approaching a 35+% rate increase in future years.
The loss of energy couldn’t have come at a worse time. With increased restrictions on fracking due to environmental concerns and resource adequacy issues across the West, energy prices are nearly double what they were a year ago. Even though commodity prices have been increasing recently, input costs continue to climb.
The best-case scenario is that we would have multiple years of above-average snowpack to replenish the reservoirs. However, even if we got consistent years of the upper estimates of hydrology, it would take 14 years or more to fill Lake Mead to full pool, an elevation it hasn’t seen since 1983.
As a former irrigation district manager, I hated to see it rain because of lost water sales and potential system damage. Given the circumstances, praying for rain has moved way up on my priority list.