The Colorado River is drying up — and it’s fair to say Phoenix, Arizona, would be drastically different without it.
To reach residents in the city, water goes through a 190-mile journey through a system of canals. But decades of drought, low snowpack in the mountains and overuse have put tremendous pressure on the reservoirs that supply water to 40 million people in the Southwest.
On Jan. 1, for the first time, Arizona’s supply of the Colorado River water will be cut by 18%. Farmers will bear the brunt at first, and if the drought continues, the cuts will go much deeper and eventually hit cities like Phoenix. That’s one reason behind why the city just broke ground on a $280-million initiative to address the issue.
Known as the Drought Pipeline Project, five-and-a-half-foot pipes will soon be buried underground in the city. The pipes are made of steel, which gives them strength, city engineer Clayton Freed says.
“This pipe will be able to carry about 75 million gallons of water a day,” he says.
The water running through the new pipes will come from two different rivers east of Phoenix. The Salt and Verde Rivers are on a separate system of canals, and they fill the taps and swimming pools in the southern half of the city.
The Salt and Verde Rivers are better equipped to rebound from a long-term drought than the Colorado River, says Bo Svoma, a meteorologist with the Salt River Project (SRP), a utility that manages the watershed.
He says SRP reservoirs are smaller with fewer customers drawing from them, and one big rainstorm can make a significant difference.
"Even during severe drought, a wet winter can come by in the next five years and refill the SRP system like it has during this drought,” Svoma says.
Reservoirs on the Salt and Verde Rivers are pretty strong — about 67% full, according to the SRP.
Planning the pipeline
The new pipeline will move that water nine miles north to part of Phoenix where 400,000 people rely almost entirely on water from the Colorado River.
“This pipeline will allow us to move that treated Salt and Verde River water up where we need it in times of drought if our Colorado River supply is cut back,” Freed, the city engineer, says.
Troy Hayes, the water services director for Phoenix, says when this pipeline was first planned in 2015, the chance of rationing river water was pretty remote — around 3% to 5% chance that “declarations of shortage on the Colorado River” could occur, he says.
But just six years later, that’s exactly what happened.
When Hayes first saw the Bureau of Reclamation’s report, which came out in August, his first thought was: “Let’s try to weather this storm,” he recalls.
Right now, the city isn’t in danger. But if the Colorado River keeps dropping, another round of cuts will be coming. Phoenix could eventually lose up to 20% — or more — of its water.
Just this week, Arizona joined Nevada, California, tribal communities and the federal government in signing a commitment to dramatically reduce the amount of Colorado River water used from Lake Mead over the next two years.
Hayes says this pipeline is in preparation for a day when the city gets no water from the Colorado River.
“Actually, [I] feel like we're in a really good place,” he says, “because of the plans and discussion to make sure we have the water supplies for decades to come.”
This segment aired on December 17, 2021.