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  • Despite monsoon rains, Arizona still grappling with consequences of drought

    Arizona has faced down more than one natural disaster this summer, from a welter of wildfires to a record-smashing heat wave. The most serious peril can be summed up in one word, says a Pima County water policy manager: drought. 

    When a region suffers from drought, it means that precipitation—whether rainfall or snowfall—has been lower than usual, resulting in less water available for our use. What makes drought dangerous is its duration. The longer drought lasts, the more serious the consequences are likely to be. Arizona has been in the grip of a severe drought for the past 26 years, with no end in sight. 

    While the refreshing monsoon rains that swept into town this month brought some relief, they won’t change the overall situation. The drought is too severe for one rainy season to make much of a difference. 

    “It would take several years of above-average precipitation for us to recover to where we used to be,” said Kathy Chavez, who manages water policy at the Office of Sustainability and Conservation

    According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 60.92 percent of Pima County is enduring an “exceptional” state of drought, a category marked by dried-up waterways, dying plants, and deadly wildfires. 

    The drought’s impact has been increased by soaring temperatures. A heat wave rolled across Arizona in June, with temperatures of 110 degrees or higher recorded every day in Tucson between June 13 and June 19. Heat KERP near the Loopdries out the ground, increasing the risk of hazardous wildfires. Ironically, drought can also make flooding worse, since dry ground doesn’t absorb water easily. 

    The situation is hardly less severe in the rest of the Southwest, particularly when it comes to the reservoirs that provide us with much of our water. 

    Last month, the water level in Lake Mead—the massive reservoir on the Arizona-Nevada border that provides us with water from the Colorado River—finally dipped below 1,075 feet. Even as demand for water in Arizona and other states has been rising, the rain and snow that nourish the river have been declining. 

    If the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center confirms the low water level in its August report, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will declare a water shortage beginning January 2022, triggering reduced water deliveries to Arizona. The Central Arizona Project (CAP), which supplies 36 percent of Arizona’s water, could have its water allocation cut by 18 percent.

    The shortage would be in place for at least one year, and it would be renewed if Lake Mead’s level remains below 1,075 feet by January 2023. If Lake Mead’s water levels dip below 1,050 feet, CAP water deliveries would be reduced by an additional 4 percent.

    These cuts will not affect water deliveries to residents, but are intended to protect the Colorado River System and reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical levels. Like other parts of Arizona that rely heavily on groundwater, the greater Tucson area is designated as an Active Management Area (AMA). Our AMA uses more than 314,000 acre-feet of water every year, and more than half of our water supply comes from the Colorado River. (For perspective: 1 acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons of water.) 

    Thus, Pima County’s ongoing efforts to conserve groundwater—and safely reclaim the water we’ve already used—are likely to become even more critical in the future, as we work to adapt to a world in which every drop of water is even more precious. 

    Thanks to the upgrades that Pima County has carried out at its water treatment facilities in recent years, we can safely use reclaimed water—rather than groundwater—for irrigation on many County-owned parks and fields, as well as many shady areas along The Chuck Huckelberry Loop. 

    In addition, this high-quality reclaimed water is stored underground, where it can be used to safely recharge the aquifer. Our reclaimed water also is used to replenish the Santa Cruz River, thus helping to restore and nurture an important local riparian habitat. 

    The County also harvests and stores stormwater for irrigating fields and environmental restoration through Kino Environmental Restoration Project, Swan Wetlands Ecosystem Restoration Project, and other projects. 

    Chavez said that these efforts show that Pima County is striving to be as fully prepared as possible for the challenges presented by the drought. 

    “We’re trying to leverage the water resources that we have available to us to drought-proof our facilities and our resources,” she said. 
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