Arizona cities dealing with water issues as megadrought continues: here's what you need to know

The historic drought gripping the Southwest is making cities around the region think about water conservation, as cities in the Phoenix area are starting to enact measures that are aimed at reducing water use.

Here's what you should know to help reduce the use of water.

Why are cities trying to save water?

According to the ADWR, the Colorado River provides water to over 40 million people and more than four million acres of farmland in seven so-called "basin states," which includes Arizona. However, the Associated Press has noted that the Colorado River cannot provide the water they were promised a century ago because of less snow, warmer temperatures and water lost to evaporation.

"The majority of Arizona's water supply comes from groundwater, believe it or not," said Arizona State Climatologist Erinanne Saffell. "Second to that comes from our in-state rivers and reservoirs, like we see here in the Salt River and the Verde River."

According to an AP article on the southwest region's ongoing drought conditions, officials with the U.S. Interior Department say the region is seeing its driest conditions in more than 1,200 years.

In March 2022, Lake Powell dipped below 3,525 feet (1,075 meters), putting it at its lowest level since the lake filled after the federal government dammed the Colorado River at Glen Canyon more than a half-century ago. Hotter temperatures and less precipitation leave a smaller amount flowing through the over-tapped Colorado River.

On Lake Mead, a Tier One water was declared in 2021 by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, this means Arizona has to reduce a total of 512,000 acre-feet of water supply from the Colorado River.

"The Tier 1 reductions constitute about 30% of [Central Arizona Project's] normal supply; about 18% of Arizona’s Colorado River supply; and less than 8% of Arizona’s total water use," read an ADWR factsheet.

"The last 20 years, we've been in drought conditions, and so we are not able to deliver all the water to the different people as they've expected over time," said Dr. Sharon Megdal, Director of University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center.

Dr. Megdal said Lake Mead and Lake Powell are down to about a quarter of their capacity.

"The Federal government is saying in order to keep the system operational, in order to keep water flowing below the dams, we have to use less because nature is not providing the water supplies it did in the past," said Dr. Megdal.

What is CAP?

The Central Arizona Project, according to its website, delivers Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties. Officials describe CAP as a 336-mile-long system of aqueducts, tunnels, pumping plants and pipelines, stretching from the Lake Havasu City area to the Tucson area. They say it is the largest single resource of renewable water supplies in Arizona.

How does the Colorado River (and CAP) affect our water supplies?

Officials with ADWR say Arizona, as one of the Colorado River basin states, has the right to use up to 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year. Of that allotment, half is budgeted for mainstream Colorado River users, and the other half to water users with the CAP.

For Arizona, water from the Colorado River is allotted based on a complex system involving water rights. In all, officials with ADWR say Colorado River water makes up 36% of Arizona's water supply, second only to groundwater (41%).

The Colorado River also plays a role in generating power. Hydroelectric plants along the river, according to ADWR, generate nearly 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

In early May, the AP reported that U.S. officials will hold back about 480,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell to maintain Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to produce hydropower. That is roughly enough water to serve 1 million to 1.5 million average households annually.

What Valley cities are enacting water conservation measures?

Officials with the cities of Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale have begun some stages of drought protocols.

What are the cities doing with the drought protocols?


On their website, Buckeye city officials listed their four-tier Drought Management Plan, with Tier 1 having a targeted water demand reduction of 5%, and Tier 4 calling for water demand reduction of 40%.

"Currently, Buckeye has not implemented any part of the Drought Management Plan," read the city's website on March 1.

Meanwhile, the city's mayor said on March 1 that the city's water supply is secure.

"We’ve been getting questions from my neighbors: Are we running out of water?" said Mayor Eric Orsborn. "People from halfway across the country asking the same."

The message from Mayor Orsborn came after a report by the state that shows the West Valley's water supply is falling behind due to the megadrought.

"I don't understand and do not, in any way, agree with my predecessor choosing to keep this from the public and members of this legislator," Hobbs said during her State of the State address on Jan. 9. "Department of Water Resources that shows portions of Phoenix's far West Valley are currently short of the 100-year assured water supply program by 15% today."

Mayor Orsborn, however, insists the city has a plan that is well underway, such as two new agreements for more water rights, using more treated wastewater to refill the aquifer, and a new requirement for developers before they start to build.

"Every development that has been developed to date, in every development, the company [must have] that certificate to supply a 100 years water supply, and you cannot build until you have that certificate," said Mayor Orsborn.

The city is also offering rebates to replace turf, and install smart irrigation systems.


City officials announced on June 21 that they will implement stage one of its drought management plan.

"Even though the City can still meet the water needs of residents and businesses, everyone is urged to continue conservation efforts," city officials said in a news release.

"First stage is really all about reaching to residents making sure they are aware of the drought situation, and conserving water," said Simone Kjolsrud with the City of Chandler.

Chandler says it has been preparing for droughts and a Colorado River shortage for decades and is prepared for a shortage.

"57% of our water is delivered through the Salt and Verde Watershed, delivered by SRP canals," said Kjolsrud. "37% of our supplies come from the Colorardo system, and we also have roughly six-percent of our supplies come from groundwater."

"Access to a safe and secure water supply is essential to the exceptional quality of life that Chandler provides," Mayor Kevin Hartke said. "Through regional coordination, innovative programs and decades of planning, the City has prepared for Colorado River shortages and will continue to monitor and adapt to this evolving situation."

The last time the City of Chandler enacted its drought plan was in 2003, when SRP's water supply was low.


City Manager Kevin Phelps declared a stage one drought watch on June 17.

"Really what made us go into Stage 1 a little earlier was all the news on the Colorado River we’ve been hearing," said City of Glendale Water Resources manager Drew Swieczkowski.

During the first stage, the city will target a 5% water reduction goal and ask residents and businesses to conserve water.

There are no mandatory restrictions.

"Glendale identified this issue several years ago and since then, we have been aggressively storing water for future use," Phelps said in a news release. "We understand the seriousness of the situation and our plans, actions and programs reflect our goal of being as drought resilient as possible."


In Mesa, which is on stage one of its water shortage plan, city officials have started to reduce water usage by city facilities.

In addition, city officials are asking residents to do their part to conserve water.

"There is water enough to do what we need to. We don’t need to panic. What we do need to do is to be more aware of it," said Mesa Mayor John Giles.

In the first stage of its water shortage plan, Mesa city officials will put limits on overseeding when it comes to city landscaping.

"The largest user of water in the City of Mesa is the City of Mesa, so we are looking for opportunities to be more frugal in the way that we use water. To be more responsible in what we irrigate and what we don’t," said Mayor Giles.

Mayor Giles says it is time to be more serious about how residents use water.

"The point of that plan is really to raise awareness in how people think seriously about what they can do to exercise conservation measures in the use of the water of their families and businesses," said Mayor Giles.

Mesa has a goal of reducing municipal water use by 5% in 2022. There are no mandatory water restrictions at this time in Mesa.

"It's a great time for us to reconsider adding more xeriscape to our landscaping, or artificial grass or things that will really have a significant impact on your water usage," said Mayor Giles.

In Feb. 15, 2023, we reported that Mesa is offering up to $1,100 for residents to switch from grass to xeriscape.

"We now are up to $1,000, plus $100 extra for trees," said City of Mesa Conservation Coordinator Becky Zusy. "We had this program since 2007 and hadn't raised the incentive since then. It was time."

To qualify for the full $1,100, residents must replace more than 1,000 square feet of grass with certain low-water-use plants and two eligible trees. Replacing a smaller area of grass with xeriscape and no trees could qualify for a $750 cash back incentive.

"We see savings of 50% or more on landscape when people incorporate xeroscape instead of grass," said Zusy.


On June 29, officials with the City of Peoria announced that the West Valley city is implementing Stage 1 of its Drought Management Plan in order to raise awareness and encourage voluntary reduction measures.

"There is no immediate impact to the city’s ability to deliver water and, at this time, there are no mandatory water restrictions," read a portion of the statement.

According to the statement, the city will, in Stage 1, reduce municipal water use at city facilities and operations by at least 5%.

"In addition, the city will continue its robust efforts to educate residents and businesses on the importance of water conservation, while sharing more information about the rebate programs available to Peoria water customers," read a portion of the statement.

According to the city's Drought Management Plan, there are four drought alert stages, ranging from Stage 1 to Stage 4, a water emergency involving "a major failure of any supply, treatment of distribution infrastructure, whether temporary or permanent, in the water distribution system of the Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project, or the City of Peoria.".

In addition to the city's drought management plan, the city is working to help people save both water and money by providing free water conservation kits for homes. Residents can go online and fill out a form. They will then get a voucher, which they can take to any City of Peoria library in order to pick up the kit.


In Phoenix, city officials activated stage one of its water alert on the week of May 30.

"We need to make sure folks are prepared," said Phoenix Water Resources Management Advisor Cynthia Campbell.

For phoenix, Stage 1 means education and not mandates.

"We want our customers to come with us on this journey," said Campbell.

Campbell says the Colorado River only makes up 40% of the city's water, and while they are able to fill shortages for now, they can't do so forever.

"We want [customers] to be participants, to do things on a voluntary basis because as soon as you start mandating things, it becomes a little more difficult, and people look at it as a temporary situation," said Campbell. "This is not a temporary situation. This might be our new future."

Officials say their decision is just the beginning to make sure residents know how to conserve, and why.

On Nov. 9, city officials held a town hall meeting to discuss the water situation. Officials say there is a positive to the city's water situation, despite the city having seen its population rise over the years.

"We use less water than we did in the year 2000, and we've added hundreds of thousands of people," said Cynthia Campbell, City of Phoenix's Water Resources Management Advisor.

Campbell said the city's $300 million investigation into a drought pipeline running from Central to North Phoenix will take water from the Salt and Verde Rivers, instead of the Colorado. Campbell also says she expects a water rate hike in 2023, by an unknown amount.


We have previously reported on efforts Scottsdale city officials are taking to cut water use.

The city is on the first stage of its Drought Management plan, which asks users to reduce water use. The city is asking all residents, businesses and visitors to conserve water use by at least 5%.

"Everyone is asked to look at their water use and find better ways to conserve this precious resource," city officials said, in a statement.

City officials say since 70% of residential water is used outside, residents within the city are encouraged to take some steps, such as:

  • Adjusting their irrigation timers
  • Sign up for a portal called WaterSmart, which allows users to manage their water use and set up notifications.
  • Create a water budget
  • Requesting a free outdoor water efficiency check from an irrigation specialist, which officials say can save people 4,000 gallons of water per month

"With less water coming to us from the Colorado River in 2022, we need to learn to live with less and that starts every time we turn on the tap, flush the toilet or start our irrigation systems," said Scottsdale Water Executive Director Brian Biesemeyer.

In addition, both commercial and residential properties within the city are eligible for turf conversion rebates.

"We want to increase that potential for conservation, and the potential to use every single drop in the city boundary as efficiently as we can," said Gretchen Baumgardner, Water Policy Manager for Scottsdale Water.

Scottsdale Water has upped its deal on getting people to convert their lawn.

"For the residential side, we used to give $1 per square foot, up to a maximum of $5,000. Now, we give $2 per square foot, up to a maximum of $5,000," said Baumgardner. "For commercial, we added the turf removal rebate, which is much bigger in rebates. So, that's up to $20,000 for the commercial side, and that does include HOAs."

The city is also offering an additional $3 per square foot for the removal of any non-functional grass strips, often near sidewalks.

"Especially for those grass removals and those turf conversion rebates to desert landscape, we're seeing some significant water savings from those, and those are not just one-year water savings. Those are progressive, from year to year," said Baumgardner.

City officials expect to have a good idea of the overall water conserved when they evaluate it in spring 2023. They also expect to fully utilize the rebate budget, which would be the first year they have ever been able to do so.


On June 1, Tempe officials announced that the city is implementing the 1st stage of its four-stage Drought Preparedness Plan.

"Stage 0, also called Watch, includes increasing education and awareness of current and future drought conditions, as well as encouraging additional voluntary conservation by all water users," read a portion of the statement.

"What we’re doing right now is intensely educate the public on what this means, as well as asking them to make voluntary changes to their use," said Craig Caggiano, Water Resources Manager with the City of Tempe.

Tempe, like Mesa, has a goal of reducing municipal water use by 5% in 2022.

Potentially move all the way through restrictions, if necessary," said Caggiano. "At this time, we're not asking any of our residents to curtail their activities because of the way the drought is impacting our supplies."

90% of Tempe's water comes from the SRP, which draws water from areas that are in better shape than the Colorado River and Lake Powell.

Why aren't all cities on the same water shortage stages?

Each city gets their water from different places, and in different percentages, which is why some places are starting drought protocols, and others are not.

What might happen if water supplies continue to dwindle?

If the Colorado River supply continues to dwindle, and other water sources can’t make up for the losses, voluntary and mandatory restrictions could be enacted, including limits on outdoor watering, and car washing.

Chandler's Drought Management Plan, for example, calls for, among other things, restricting watering of lawns, trees and shrubs to once a week and banning use of all outdoor misters if the city declares that Stage 4 of their plan is in force.

Glendale's Drought Management Plan, meanwhile, calls for mandatory restrictions on landscape irrigation days, as well as restrictions on planting winter grass and car/pavement washing in Stage 3. Non-compliance may bring a potential fine.

What are state politicians doing or proposing to solve the water crisis?

In June, the Bureau of Reclamation asked seven states, including Arizona, to come up with plans that cut back on the usage of two million acre-feet to four million acre-feet of water.

"It's not only the level of adjustment that's being asked for, it's also the speed of adjustment. So it's a tall order, but we must respond," said Dr. Megdal.

The deadline is Aug. 16. If the states can't come up with a plan, the Federal government has said they will be forced to come up with one, and they will implement those regulations on the states.

"Everybody wants to help in this effort," said Dr. Megdal. "It's just such a hard, unprecedented ask of people. Coming up with a plan that all the different parties can agree to in a 60-day period is just turning out to be very, very hard."

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has, so far, not released details of a plan. Department officials say they will hold a virtual event to discuss the issue of Aug. 16.

Meanwhile, during his final State of the State address on Jan. 10, Governor Doug Ducey proposed the state set aside $1 billion to bring desalinated water to Arizona.

"Speaker [Rusty] Bowers, President [Karen] Fann and I have been working, and we propose that we make a historic investment: $1 billion," said Gov. Ducey. "Our goal: secure Arizona’s water future for the next 100 years," Gov. Ducey said, during the speech.

While Gov. Ducey previewed the plan, he offered few details during the address, nor did he say where he’d like to build a desalination plant.

Water policy experts have long discussed the possibility of using water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, the nearest sea to Arizona.

Desalinated water? What is that?

According to the United States Geological Survey, desalination is the process of turning saline water, or water with significant amounts of dissolved salts, into freshwater.

We did an explainer in January that talks about desalination.

What are people during to save water?

Some are installing artificial turf in an effort to reduce water use.

"With water restrictions, everything like that, turf is where we focus and what we do the majority of," said Michael Freeland with Turf Monsters.

Freeland talked about the benefits of artificial turf.

"They save money on water. There’s no maintenance, you don’t have to treat. Either way, you’re saving money overall," said Freeland.

Jaime McMaryion of Mesa says if she’s honest, she doesn’t really think about how much water she uses.

"It’s funny because a few years back, when I lived in California, we had a conversation with some friends," said McMaryion. "It was more just a conversation, but since it seems like it’s becoming more of a locality. It’s something to be more conscious about."

McMaryion said she plans on doing her part.

"I will become more conscious and aware of how long I take my showers. That’s usually what I use water for, to do dishes and things like that."

Are private businesses proposing solutions to this water crisis?

In Tempe, a company called Dynamic Water Technologies has created dynamic scale reactors. The device allows companies to clean dirty water, and reuse it without adding any chemicals. 

"We’re actually generating chlorine and hydrochloric acids from the native salts that are in the water, so we’re not adding any chemical,s but we’re making a very active bio site," said Michael Boyko.

Boyko says they are successful nationally and internationally, with their device being used by places like NASA and the City of Los Angeles.

For a while, however, Arizona companies have been harder to worker with. Boyko says that is now changing.

"I’m glad we’re talking about it. I’m not happy there’s a drought, but I’m glad that we’re doing something to try to conserve water and the resources we have," said Boyko.

Boyko says he would like the state to add  incentives for businesses that conserve water.

"What good does it do once the water is gone to try to save it? Save it while we have it. Try and get ahead of the curve and save what we can, while we can, while it’s still here. That’s what we need to do," said Boyko.