Colorado River Cutbacks

Jan. 12, 2022
As the Colorado River enters a Tier 1 Shortage, the American Southwest must enhance the sustainability of its water use.

In a first-ever action, the United States’ Department of the Interior declared a Tier 1 Shortage for freshwater resources on the Colorado River.

This decree carries enormous ramifications for Southwestern states, particularly Arizona and Nevada, which will see curtailment of their water allotments fall by 18 and 7 percent, respectively. Restrictions are set to go into effect in January 2022, with Arizona farmers facing the brunt of the cuts. Both states have already also signed an agreement to voluntarily reduce their take from the river by 500,000 acre-feet each for the next two years.

Arizona receives 36 percent of the state’s overall water portfolio from the river, which means that in future years, stakeholders will need to plan for contingencies related to reduced water supplies.

The good news for the state of Arizona is that government, business, and non-profit leaders have been laser-focused on water issues for decades. Even as Arizona has seen its population increase massively over the last 30 years, water usage in the state has continued to decline. This is due to long-term strategic planning in areas of conservation, resource utilization, infrastructure, and water stewardship.

As one of the state’s largest water, wastewater, and recycled water utilities, Global Water Resources manages more than 300 square miles of certificated service territory. This geographic scale is on par with some of the largest utilities in the country. Executive leadership has been proactively working with water users in the region to mitigate the impact of over two decades of drought, which helped cause the Tier 1 shortage.


Arizona’s water story begins in 1980 with the Groundwater Management Act (GMA). Prior to 1980, the state’s water usage accelerated year over year. The GMA created the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and provided a complex architecture of laws, rules, management plans, and policies that has ensured smart water management practices across all sectors.

With the GMA and ADWR in place for over four decades, Arizona’s water assets are in fine shape. As an example, the state currently maintains over three trillion gallons of stored water for future use. That is equivalent to serving the city of Phoenix for 30 years.

That said, the state’s challenges are ongoing and numerous, including drought and climate change, which must be addressed across multiple channels.


Many possibilities exist for innovation-led conservation in the Southwest. This includes investments in technologies on both the supply and demand side.

Municipal water providers have done a good job in implementing conservation programs. The per capita reductions that have occurred in the region have greatly outpaced the nation’s average per capita cuts.

The most effective strategies focus on awareness and customer behavior, specifically the integration of education programs, and the implementation of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to inform customers on their water use. AMI is a win-win for utilities and customers alike.

By obtaining meter readings up to 96 times a day, AMI systems allow customers to understand their water use in real time. Additionally, graphical representation of water use on the web, along with email or text alerts on leak detection leads to real-time water savings and meaningful bill reductions for customers. AMI technology, when combined with educated customers and with smart rate designs that provide a disincentive for high water use, can help entire communities become significantly more water efficient.

Another conservation opportunity is further maximizing recycled water for beneficial reuse. This would include direct potable reuse (DPR), which is being implemented in various parts of the world. As growth continues and water supplies are strained in the desert Southwest, DPR will be implemented by numerous utilities, saving billions of gallons each year.

Lastly, there is continuing innovation on the supply side, specifically desalination. Innovations in desalination are incrementally lowering the cost of desalinating ocean water. More desalination projects and importation projects will continue to spring up across the West.

Resource utilization

The GMA created a very sophisticated system for municipal water providers and this system has provided a lot of incentives and disincentives for different actions. It also created innovative solutions between institutions and utilities, which has allowed Arizona to lead the way in cooperatively managing resources.

Two key programs created by the GMA have really propelled Arizona forward: the Assured Water Supply Program (AWSP) and the Aquifer Recharge Program.

Under the AWSP, developers and utilities must prove to the state that a 100-year supply exists before a new subdivision can proceed. Additionally, the AWSP provides incentives for the recharge of aquifers. There are huge benefits to these programs ­— the obvious one being that development cannot occur without a robust water supply.

The primary trade off to these programs is, of course, an additional regulatory burden that slows development. Also, development in some areas will cease if a 100-year water supply cannot be proven. While some developers will see this as a drawback, smart utility managers see the value in appropriately assessing available water resources before development occurs.


In its current form, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act deploys $105 billion into ensuring clean drinking water, water storage in Western states, and resilience infrastructure. Resilience infrastructure refers to the ability of such infrastructure systems to absorb disturbances and still retain their basic function and structural capacity. This means infrastructure assets operate properly, serve customers at a premium level, and maintain reliability and integrity.

To achieve this, investment decisions around physical infrastructure should emphasize both technological advancement and resource conservation. Use of advanced technologies reduces operating expenses and maximizes the useful life of assets, which creates an efficient utility that ultimately benefits customers.

A comprehensive approach to water utility management, able to reduce demand on scarce non-renewable water sources, and costly renewable water supplies, in a manner that ensures sustainability and greatly benefits communities both environmentally and economically is also key. A Total Water Management (TWM) approach employs a series of principles and practices that result in real reductions to per capita demand while allowing for economic development and other quality of life goals.

The tenets of TWM are as follows:

  • Where possible, integrate water, wastewater and recycled water service in the same geographic area as to maximize the use of recycled water and minimize the use of potable water.
  • For each community and unique situation, determine the best use of recycled water targeting 100 percent reuse.
  • Create regional plans to consolidate and integrate water, wastewater, and recycled water utilities and resources to the extent possible.
  • Construct regional infrastructure that optimizes use of resources while ensuring the efficient operations of the utilities.
  • Leverage advanced technology that allows for the accurate and meaningful tracking of resources, for both water and the physical plant.
  • Institute programs that utilize data and incentivize behaviors that result in reduced demand of all water resource types.

The most important part of this approach is the people aspect: employees, customers, regulators, and regional stakeholders all play a role. Outreach and educational initiatives are critical to ensure all stakeholders are knowledgeable on the principles and practices outlined above.

Also important in this architecture is the establishment of partnerships with communities, developers, and industry stakeholders to gain support for the principals outlined and to develop further legislation, rules, codes, and standards in pursuit of continuous improvement.

The effects of climate change are causing drought conditions, as is the case in the current Tier 1 Colorado River shortage. Municipalities must strategize toward conservation, resource utilization, infrastructure, and water stewardship to help ensure a sustainable water future. WW

Published in WaterWorld magazine, January 2022.

About the Author

Ron Fleming

Ron Fleming is chairman, president, and CEO of Global Water Resources Inc., a water resource management company that owns, operates, and manages water, wastewater, and recycled water utilities in strategically-located communities — principally in metropolitan Phoenix, Ariz.