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A high water mark is visible on the shoreline of Lake Mead at Hoover Dam.

Joshua Bowling Arizona Republic

Arizona leaders are bracing for a historic Colorado River shortage in 2022. It won’t leave your tap dry, but several Phoenix-area cities are increasing water rates ahead of the shortage.

Water buffalos— the experts, wonks and gadflies of the water world — in Valley city halls say the impending shortage isn’t solely to blame for the increases. They also cite the costs that come with repairs to aging infrastructure in older parts of town and installing new infrastructure in younger parts of town where growth has exploded. Cities won’t directly lose Colorado River water in the upcoming shortage, but they will pay more for it.

The shortage would slash Arizona’s “excess pool,” which has long been used to fuel growth in some of the Valley’s farthest reaches, and could significantly cut into the water supply used by Pinal County farmers. That water will instead be kept in Lake Mead, which provides much of Arizona’s water.

While that won’t directly hit cities, it will make the remaining water pricier, Peoria Water Services Director Cape Powers said.

“Shortage on the Colorado River will not impact our water supplies. (But) we’re going to see higher costs,” he said, adding that Peoria is prepared to spend an extra $1 million next year on Colorado River water.

Is your city raising rates?

Several cities in metro Phoenix have increased rates for 2022 or are considering hikes. Others that rely much less on the Colorado River are not.

Where rates are increasing, it generally comes out to a few dollars per month for the average homeowner.

“I think it equates to something like $2 per month, but it’s still an increase. I think people would be much more upset if they went to turn on the tap and nothing came out,” Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers said.

Current increases in metro Phoenix break down like this:

  • Phoenix: The City Council in March approved a 6.5% increase over the next two years. Cost will increase $2.40 per month for the average residential water user. City leaders in 2019 approved a separate rate increase to prepare for Colorado River shortages.
  • Glendale: Glendale leaders propose a water rate increase of 4.3% for 2022. Leaders expect it to cost the average customer about 10 cents per day. The city’s water services director said it is not in response to the looming Colorado River shortage.
  • Peoria: Peoria approved a 2.75% water rate increase for 2022. The city’s water services director attributed it to infrastructure costs, rapid growth and the impending shortage.
  • Tempe: Tempe leaders in late 2020 approved a 5.9% water and wastewater rate increase that took effect this year. That comes to an average increase of $3.25 per month, according to city documents.
  • Scottsdale: Leaders are considering a 3% rate increase for 2022. The City Council in 2018 created a drought reserve fund to offset the cost of Colorado River water in a shortage and prevent passing that cost onto residents, city spokesperson Kelly Corsette said. The fund has $3 million, he said.
  • Mesa: The City Council will discuss whether to increase rates this fall, city spokesperson Kevin Christopher said, adding that any potential increase will not be in response to a Colorado River shortage declaration. 
  • Gilbert: Town staff is conducting a rate study to determine if a rate increase is necessary, town spokesperson Jennifer Harrison said. Any increase will be in response to infrastructure needs and not a shortage, she said.
  • Surprise: Surprise leaders are not considering a water rate increase, spokesperson Virginia Mungovan said.
  • Avondale: Avondale leaders are considering a water rate increase and will host a meeting Aug. 23 for residents to learn more about it. City documents cite the rising cost of Colorado River water in a shortage as a factor.
  • Goodyear: City leaders in January approved a five-year plan that cut rates for water, wastewater, sanitation and stormwater by 3.29% and will increase them 4.09% in 2022. Public Works Director Javier Setovich said the shortage will be an expense for Goodyear but that it was not the driving factor behind increasing rates.
  • Buckeye: Buckeye has not had a water rate increase since 2016. The city receives much less Colorado River water than other major Phoenix-area cities.

Cities won’t have a direct hit, but they’ll pay

City leaders won’t have to worry about losing their Colorado River water next year, but more extreme shortages could hit closer to home.

Each level of shortage is known as a “tier” and goes into effect when the water in Lake Mead drops to specific elevations. As drought tightened its decades-long grip on the American West, leaders in 2019 signed a series of agreements known as the Drought Contingency Plan, which call for leaving more water in Lake Mead to delay severe shortages.

Arizona is expected to be in a “Tier 1” shortage — when Lake Mead drops to an elevation of 1,075 feet above sea level — in 2022. The feds are expected to make the shortage declaration in August.

A July report from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says Lake Mead, which is the nation’s largest reservoir, is just 35% full at nearly 1,068 feet above sea level.

A Tier 1 shortage will cut the state’s annual entitlement of Colorado River water, which is 2.8 million acre-feet, by 512,000 acre-feet, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. One acre-foot is enough water for three average Phoenix households for one year.

A shortage likely wouldn’t have direct impacts for Valley cities until a more extreme shortage, when Lake Mead hits 1,045 feet and partially cuts water supplies that some cities rely on.

“There’s been a lot of planning behind this, knowing that the Colorado River is structurally overallocated,” said Teri Wenck, Fitch Ratings director of U.S. public finance, which in July predicted that the looming shortage would pass costs onto Arizona cities.

Wenck added that cities’ supplies won’t be cut off — they “can take their water, it will just cost more.”

Phoenix and other cities have considered pumping more groundwater as climate change’s effects continue to strain rivers.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water for some 40 million people from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border. For years, officials have doled out more water than actually flows down the Colorado River, making it chronically overallocated.

Cities look to conservation

The writing has been on the wall for years that the Colorado River’s yearly overallocation would eventually catch up to it. Cities that depend on it have increasingly embraced conservation.

Arizona in 2018 opened the door for cities to use direct potable reuse, also known as “toilet-to-tap,” a term that makes its advocates wince. It hasn’t gained traction, but many cities use indirect potable reuse — which involves capturing the water that goes down your drain and treating it — for non-drinking purposes, such as landscaping.

As the Valley has grown, family farms have transformed into strip malls and apartment buildings. In general, housing and development use less water than agriculture.

And some cities will even pay you to conserve.

Glendale, for instance, has a landscaping program that gives homeowners up to $750 for converting grass lawns into more water-sensitive xeriscaping.

Republic reporter Taylor Seely contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Joshua Bowling at jbowling@azcentral.com or 602-444-8138. Follow him on Twitter @MrJoshuaBowling.