Sharing the Colorado River’s Water: West Braces for a Change

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Now as a trickle but soon as a torrent, Arizona is finally taking its share of the Colorado River, and the impact will be felt from here to the Pacific beaches.

The Central Arizona Project, a $3.5-billion aqueduct, tunnel and pumping system designed to carry water from Lake Havasu on the Colorado south through the desert and over mountains to Phoenix and Tucson, has been operating since early this year. By 1992, 1.6 million acre-feet of water--enough to cover 1.6 million acres a foot deep--is scheduled to be flowing through the project’s aqueducts--water once available to Southern California.

Residential Subdivisions

That reluctant division of water between Arizona and the Southland continues the political legacy of Western water competition left by Hoover Dam, the huge project that started it all by blocking the Colorado and making the river available for power and water for Western land that was lightly populated in the 1930s but now is a booming part of the Sun Belt.


Thousands of acres of farmland around Phoenix and Tucson will become residential subdivisions, industrial parks and shopping centers as, for the first time in American history, a federal water project conceived to reclaim land for new farms is used for urban development.

The population of metropolitan Phoenix, now 1,721,300, is expected to grow to 2,156,300 by 1990--an increase accompanied by more new manufacturing plants, downtown high-rises, industrial parks, shopping centers and residential subdivisions, many with big lawns and centerpiece artificial lakes.

Tucson, to the south, is also growing, with its present 973,000 population projected at 1,149,000 by 1990.

The impact will be great in Southern California. In dry years along the Colorado, the plentiful water supply long provided by Hoover Dam will be diminished for the Southland, which is now looking to new water sources and beginning conservation measures, a development that will affect Southern California’s economy and the way its residents live. In the view of water experts, the price of water, traditionally cheap in the West, will rise, reflecting limited supplies and increased demands for improved water quality and the high electric power-pumping and construction costs of delivering it from mountains and rivers to urban areas.

“We increasingly around here view water in economic terms,” said Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. “The original view of Western water was not really based on comparative economics because there wasn’t much urban population, and the only large-scale use of the water was agricultural.”

“No matter how you phrase it, there is the question of cost,” said Edwin H. Clark II, a senior associate of the Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization that does research on environmental and resource issues. “There’s no more cheap water available. It is more expensive to get the supply and more expensive to clean it up.”

All this is taking place against a background of political warfare. Among the combatants are Western states pitted against each other; Midwesterners unhappy about federal dollars subsidizing Sun Belt economic competitors; environmentalists concerned about the project’s threat to the rare desert bald eagle, and Arizona critics who say the Central Arizona Project is unneeded.

This warfare has always been part of the story of Western water, lifeblood in a parched land.

Imported water, combined with water pumped from underground, created metropolitan Phoenix, a green spot in the desert whose boosters are acutely conscious of the source of their prosperity--and are never without the fear of losing it.

Their lessons are taken from ancient history. Outside of Phoenix, a native American tribe, the Hohokam, settled by the Gila River in around 300 BC, archeologist Emil W. Haury calculates. More than 1,000 years later the Hohokam had developed adobe-lined canals and dams and ditches to take the water to fields of maize and cotton. In about 1450, the Hohokam vanished. Nobody knows for certain why, but one reason may have been the failure of their irrigation system to cope with the salinity of Arizona’s desert and water.

“You can go down there to the Hohokam,” said House Republican leader Burton W. Barr, one of the most powerful politicians in Arizona and a backer of the Central Arizona Project and the urban life it will bring. “They had one of the most intellectual Indian groups; they were supposed to have the greatest water program in the world and all that’s left there is a guy from the Department of Interior with a brown hat on who says, ‘Here’s where they were.’ I tell the people that’s what we’ll have, the guy in the brown hat standing here.”

Proposed in 1947

Arizonans in Congress first proposed the Central Arizona Project in 1947, but it was blocked for years by California’s bigger and more powerful congressional delegation. Not until 1968, when a compromise guaranteed California a minimum supply each year from the Colorado, would California support the project.

Today, powerful pumps consume tremendous amounts of electric power to lift water more than 800 feet from Lake Havasu to the open aqueduct that will serve Phoenix.

This year, according to Thomas C. Clark, general manager of the Arizona Water Conservation District, less than 100,000 acre-feet of water will be delivered through the project. That is not enough to greatly affect Southern California, whose Metropolitan Water District is entitled to 1.2 million acre-feet a year from the Colorado.

But in 1986, Clark said, the figure will rise to between 200,000 and 300,000 acre-feet a year. By 1987, the project hopes to be supplying water to heavily agricultural Pinal County, south of Phoenix--raising total deliveries to possibly 500,000 acre-feet and hitting full project capacity of 1.6 million by 1989.

That will reduce the MWD’s share of water by about half, from 1,212,000 acre-feet a year to less than 550,000.

The water will bring great changes to Arizona, which already has been transformed dramatically from the frontier days of 1880, when William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding general of the Army, toured what was then a territory. Seeing he was dismayed at the dry, sandy, hot landscape, a local booster told him all the place needed was less heat and more water. “That’s all Hell needs,” Sherman replied.

One of the most significant changes has been a decline in agriculture in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. The state is pushing the farmers out of business by raising the price of their water and by imposing a strict legal limit on how much water can be pumped from underground. That limit will force them to use Central Arizona Project water.

Primarily for Farms

The project had been intended primarily to serve farms. Between 80% to 90% of the water was to go to agriculture. But now, a major purpose is to provide water for urban growth in Phoenix and Tucson, and officials estimate that only 50% of the water will go for agriculture.

“The future scenario says there isn’t going to be any farmland here by the year 2000,” Hugh Holub, a water lawyer and project backer, said of Tucson. “We’re doing real well in industrialization. We’re not going to get paper mills and stuff like that, but the high-tech stuff is chugging along just fine.”

Farmers, meanwhile, are facing difficult new economic realities.

When the project is in full operation, farmers will pay $55 an acre-foot, plus a $2 charge to cover project construction costs. That is $12 to $15 an acre-foot more than it now costs them to pump underground water.

The water available for agriculture will be used mostly for big farms that grow grains and cotton that are part of a national farm produce surplus, according to an analysis of the project done by Thomas M. Power of the University of Montana.

Power objects to using project water for urban growth. He also says that “as a result, billions of U.S. dollars will be spent so that some of the richest and fastest-growing communities in the West can be provided with water they could provide more cheaply themselves.”

Power and other project critics deny project backers’ belief that Arizona’s underground water supplies are quickly running out. They say there is enough water underground, for example, to support more than 2 million people in the Phoenix area for several centuries.

“Existing supplies of both surface and ground water are much more adequate than is claimed by the advocates of more water projects,” said Frank Welsh in his book, “How to Create a Water Crisis.” “With conservation and the use of waste water, and especially the implementation of a more rational agriculture appropriate to the desert, the ‘need’ for most, if not all, new water projects could be eliminated,” he said.

Another Point of View

While many water officials concede that warnings of underground water shortages have been overblown, they sharply disagree with Welsh’s contention that the state can rely heavily on its underground supply.

One of the most controversial elements of the Central Arizona Project is called “Plan 6,” which includes a big water storage facility, New Waddell Dam on the Agua Fria River, and Cliff Dam, a flood control facility on the Verde River. Cliff is designed to improve Phoenix’s flood protection.

That protection would open the Phoenix area’s Salt River flood plain to extensive commercial, industrial and residential development.

A prime backer of Plan 6 is Barr, GOP leader in the lower house of the Arizona Legislature. Barr and developers are backing a huge industrial park and residential and commercial project on the flood plain.

Barr, an enthusiastic growth advocate who also is campaigning for an Oct. 8 ballot measure that would quadruple the Phoenix area’s freeway network, said Cliff Dam and Rio Salado, the flood plain project, would provide “the most gorgeous recreational area you would ever see.”

Plan 6 is the immediate target of Central Arizona Project critics.

Danger for Eagles

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, is charging that Cliff Dam would wreck the habitat of a southern subspecies of the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, whose nesting areas and fish supply would be endangered by the reservoir behind the proposed dam.

With the threatened eagle as a centerpiece of their effort, the environmentalists are waging a strong attack against the dam.

Other opposition to the project is coming from the Midwest, where Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) objects to low federal interest rates for the project.

Under federal reclamation law, Washington is reimbursed by water users for portions of reclamation projects like the Arizona project. The users will pay a low interest rate of 3.34%, set by the Interior Department when construction first began. That rate also will apply to later features, such as Plan 6.

‘An Embarrassment’

“What possible reason can anyone give for providing 3.34% when the government itself is paying 9% and 10% and 11% for its money?” Metzenbaum asked. “I would think it would be an embarrassment for them to come in and ask for this kind of a handout, knowing the pressure to balance the budget.”

Metzenbaum is part of a growing group in Congress that is skeptical about the expensive Western reclamation projects. Former President Jimmy Carter reflected that philosophy with his 1981 “hit list” that would have eliminated several of them. Western lawmakers killed the list, but skepticism remains and there is a feeling in Arizona that the project will be the last of its kind.

Aware of the hostility, Babbitt and other Arizona leaders are putting together a plan for Arizona interests to share the cost of the Plan 6 portion of the project. It would be the first time that state and local agencies would have put up construction money for a federal reclamation project. Babbitt said he believes that will set a pattern for future projects, including those proposed for California.

“The traditional position of the West was ‘Give us the money and leave us alone,’ ” he said. “The Carter hit list started people thinking. The concept of cost-sharing is the wave of the future.”

The Arizona forces say cost-sharing, the state’s strict water conservation law and the skill and clout of Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) will keep yearly appropriations for the project coming. And even some of the project’s most fervent foes agree.

Perhaps Too Optimistic

California water officials concur, although some think the Arizona delivery schedule is too optimistic.

Completion of the project will pose major problems for Southern California.

One is water supply. In dry years, the Colorado River would not have enough water to supply all the states that have rights to it--Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. Indian tribes and Mexico also have Colorado rights.

Southern California’s MWD has been searching for new water sources, some more expensive than the Colorado River, which is pumped to Southern California with low-cost power from Hoover Dam. Expensive water conservation facilities may be built in the Imperial Valley by the MWD in exchange for surplus water from that agricultural area. More water from the State Water Project will be used, and it is also more expensive than that from the Colorado. The cost of bringing in the water could raise water bills, MWD officials said.

One result of this is a growing interest in conservation. Another local water agency, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has already taken a major conservation measure, proposing to raise rates during the summer to limit water use.

The day President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Hoover Dam half a century ago was just the beginning. The dilemma of Western water remains.


Work on the Central Arizona Project was preceded by a history that began at the turn of the century. Some important dates:

1902: Congress passes, and President Theodore Roosevelt signs, the Reclamation Act providing for federal financing of irrigation projects. 1940: James G. Girand, a Phoenix engineer, proposes a Central Arizona Authority, a plan for importing Colorado River water. It became a forerunner to Central Arizona Project proposal. 1964: U.S. Supreme Court awards Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River, assuring water for the proposed Central Arizona Project. 1968: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs law authorizing Central Arizona Project. 1973: Work begins on project. 1985: First water deliveries made, although project remains incomplete.


The Colorado River supplies water to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. In addition, native American tribes and Mexico also have water rights. According to a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, this is how the expected annual 16.8 million acre-feet* of water would be divided:

Upper basin states, Colo., Wyo., Utah, N.M. 7.5 million acre-feet Mexico 1.0 million acre-feet Indian tribes 0.8 million acre-feet Lower basin states, Cal., Ariz., Nev. 7.5 million acre-feet California 4.4 million acre-feet Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet Nevada 0.3 million acre-feet

Until the Central Arizona Project reaches full operation, California can use more than its full entitlement. The Metropolitan Water District has been using 1.21 million acre-feet a year--an allocation that will decline to less than 550,000. However, water experts say that the allocation was based on a faulty estimate of the amount of water flowing in the Colorado, which often does not reach 15 million acre-feet, particularly in dry years. After several dry years, reservoirs decline and the U.S. Secretary of Interior is empowered to allocate the water. These figures show the wide variation in river flow:

Average yearly flow, 1896-1929 16.8 million acre-feet. Average yearly flow, 1930-1968 13.0 million acre-feet. Dryest 10-year period, 1931-40 11.8 million acre-feet. Wettest 10-year period, 1914-1923 18.8 million acre-feet. Maximum year, 1917 24.0 million acre-feet. Minimum year, 1934 5.6 million acre-feet.

*An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre one foot deep. Times City-County Bureau administrative aide Cecilia Rasmussen contributed research to this story.