When Gilbert residents turn their taps on in 2022, water will reliably flow from them.

That will remain true well into the future, officials said, despite the first-ever declared water shortage at the Lake Mead reservoir on the Colorado River, a main supplier of the West’s most precious resource for seven states, including Arizona, and Mexico.

That is largely because municipal users have high-priority rights to Colorado River water. Furthermore, municipal users—including Gilbert, which receives 29% of its water from the river—foresaw this possibility long ago and have laid the groundwork to withstand it, officials said.

“We recognize this is our lifeblood, and we live in the desert, so you’ve got to make sure that every drop counts,” said Warren Tenney, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which counts 10 of the largest Valley cities, including Gilbert, as its members. “There’s lots of folks working on that.”

The shortage declaration means the Central Arizona Project, the state’s water supplier from the river, will have to make cuts to users starting in 2022. Cuts also may play a part in higher water rates as Gilbert is undergoing a rate study this year.

Municipalities have made efforts to stretch water supplies such as having multiple water sources, aggressive groundwater management and having 100-year water assurance plans. Although it will not save the river, residential and commercial conservation efforts can also help stretch the supply so harsher measures are delayed or never come to fruition.

“Those are not a response to drought,” said Eric Braun, Gilbert assistant public works director. “That is something that we do every day because it’s just the lifestyle you have to live when you live in the desert.”

Drought contingency plan

The seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water have long partnered in managing the river’s water supply, officials said. Recognizing looming shortages under the historic drought of the past couple decades, those partners came together again in 2019 to reach agreement on the drought contingency plan.

Under that plan, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gives, on a monthly basis, a two-year projection of water levels at Lake Mead, and if the projection drops below different points, cuts to supplies are made, Braun said.

The August report—used to determine if such cuts would be needed in 2022—projected the lake level at 1,061 feet in January, 14 feet below the mark to declare a Tier 1 shortage. That triggered the cuts for 2022 supplies.

Those cuts start with “excess water” users, or those with no long-term contracts for river water, Braun said.

Municipalities are scheduled to take small cuts, but through some complex water accounting with water the cities have stored away, the cuts will be mitigated. Municipalities will end up with no cuts in 2022 and still receive 75% of their 2% cut the next year.

“It changes things, but not materially and certainly not to the customers, to the end-users,” Braun said.

Braun said the river could reach a Tier 2 shortage for 2023, but Gilbert’s ability to meet demand would not be affected.

Ending the drought requires multiple consecutive years of good snowpack and runoff of that snow as it melts into the river, particularly in the upper basin states of Colorado and Wyoming, Braun said. The wet monsoon season this summer is helpful more to the Salt River Project water supplies on the Salt and Gila rivers. SRP also supplies nearly one-third of Gilbert’s water.

Another round of negotiations on how to better divvy up supplies among the states is also underway, said Sarah Porter, the executive director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, an arm of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

“That’s an indication that the plan that the states put into place for keeping Lake Mead levels up isn’t sufficient, so more needs to be done,” Porter said.

Municipal efforts

Braun said Gilbert is not on an island as it pertains to water management, as state and regional partner efforts are important to maintaining the Colorado River’s supplies.

“Cities are in the forever business, and water is the key ingredient to making sure that they’re going to be around for the long haul,” Tenney said. “And so having water and preparing and thinking of the different scenarios that are going to happen is something that the city water managers and others in the cities have been working on and have been well aware of.”

Perhaps the most important of these efforts is a 100-year assured water plan, without which towns cannot continue to grow, Braun said.

“The assured water supply is the foundation that we built this all on—that we have enough water to meet your needs for 100 years before you even show up,” he said. “That is incredibly forward-looking. There is not another business that I know of that has a 100-year business plan, but we do on the water side.”

Part of having such supply is having a number of sources for water. For Gilbert, that includes water from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project, water from Salt River Project, groundwater and reclaimed water.

“All of those different supplies knitted together helps us be really resilient when one or two of those supplies are in a shortage situation,” Braun said.

One area where shortage could hit Gilbert customers is their pocketbooks. Raw water prices for the town are expected to rise because of the way costs are figured, Braun said.

The town has not had a water rate increase since November 2018, but it has initiated a rate study with the goal of presenting to Town Council this winter. The driver is the need to replace the North Water Treatment Plant, which needs frequent repair and uses outdated technology at a time when the water coming in is growing dirtier, Gilbert Budget Director Kelly Pfost said.

However, with the shortage now declared and prices expected to rise, Pfost said that could be considered in the rate study as well. However, she said it is too early to know what that increase will look like.

Conservation’s role

The town points to local conservation efforts as helpful. For example, a water budget program for large landscape water users is credited with saving hundreds of millions of gallons a year and a voluntary residential water checkup program another several million gallons, Braun said.

In all, Gilbert consumed 17.61 billion of the 19.35 billion gallons of water it produced in 2020, town data shows.

Porter said she cautions about how much to expect from conservation efforts even while encouraging they be undertaken to stretch the resource.

“Not showering every other day or whatever probably isn’t having a direct impact on Lake Mead, and in the big picture cities account for only about 11% of all of the withdrawal from the Colorado River,” she said. “So even the most aggressive conservation by cities won’t be the big wins that save Lake Mead.”

Likewise, Braun dismisses the notion that more rigid measures, like banning all grass, are needed.

“People look and they see golf courses or they see parks or they see front lawns that are green, and they’ll dispute whether or not we believe that we live in a desert,” he said. “But we can have those things because we do have this forward planning.”

Even so, officials hope the shortage inspires people to take action.

“What we want to do is leverage the community’s desire to be a good steward right now,” interim Water Resources Manager Lauren Hixson said. “Each individual’s action by itself isn’t going to make a large impact, but everybody together can contribute.”