Colorado River Water, ie. CAP

A Blessing or a dilemma?

Construction of the Central Arizona Project began at Lake Havasu in 1973 and was completed in 1993 at the terminus south of Tucson. The entire project cost American taxpayers over $4 billion to construct.

In the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928, Congress gave 2.8 million acre feet to Arizona. Some 60% to 80% of it was expected to go to agriculture, because agriculture, particularly subsidized cotton, was causing the problem of serious groundwater overdraft. From 1953 to 1968, the principal agricultural areas in center and southeastern regions of Arizona averaged pumping almost 5 million acre-feet per year, while natural recharge was some 1.5 million acre feet. Three and one-half million acre feet is a serious overdraft.

From 1928 until 1973 when the project was begun, there was a lot of bickering and law suits back and forth between the southwestern states, which has been meticulously documented by Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert. I always say, "Read this book and you will no longer have any hope for humanity."

Pressured by President Carter, who threatened to take the CAP project off the federal funding list, the Arizona legislators finally passed a Groundwater Code. Although the Code did help protect from new agricultural development—it grandfathered in all agriculture users, industry and golf courses existent at that time. This meant some 80%-95% of groundwater was allocated.

There was no provision to diminish the traditional uses over time, the users who had created the critical groundwater problem that required huge government expenditure. Secondly, which turned out to be a crucial point, users were not required to switch from groundwater to CAP water. However, the federal law authorizing the CAP did stipulate that no new areas of agricultural land could be irrigated with CAP water and when CAP was used, an equivalent amount of groundwater had to be left in the ground.

There was one problem—and a university team had warned the Bureau and officials of the likelihood of the dilemma: the farmers did not want to pay for water when they could pump water out of the ground free—technically at the price of electricity to pump it. With CAP there was not only the cost of the water, there were capital costs to pipe it to the farm. So in many cases, small towns are having to dig deeper for water, even though their water situation could have been alleviated had agriculture opted to use CAP.

All in all, by the time the pipeline was completed to Tucson—and was rejected by Tucson residents, CAP was in financial trouble. The CAP authority cut the price of the water, giving a special discount to agriculture and postponing repayment of the capital costs.

What was the end result? With the "use it or lose it" motto, CAP water was used to promote urban sprawl, which creates a "heat island" effect. Both Tucson and Phoenix are experiencing a 10 degree rise in temperatures over the temps in the 1950's. Are we really getting the quality of life—and water—that brought us to Arizona?

For a comprehensive report on the CAP project and the lessons learned, a report from University of California

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