Metro Phoenix cities start cutting back on water use as Arizona's largest water source struggles

Joshua Bowling
Arizona Republic

Some metro Phoenix cities are taking initial steps to cut back on their water use while Arizona's largest source of water continues to be strained.

The measures are much less extreme than similar ones in California or Nevada; residents will not see any impact at home. But if things continue to get worse, which most every water leader in the western U.S. anticipates, some Valley residents may need to cut back on their water use.

Mesa this month enacted the first of its four water shortage tiers. It's aimed at outdoor water use, which is the vast majority of water used in Arizona. The declaration means city facilities will cut back on how much water they use. Future stages call for more extreme restrictions, such as only letting restaurants serve water when a customer requests it and adding a fee to the bills of large water users. 

City leaders from the West to the East Valley are focused on a "culture change" before requiring residents to use less water. That's been decades in the making — the well-known "Water: Use It Wisely" campaign started as a joint effort between Mesa, Phoenix and Scottsdale in 1999.

The region has seen success in cutting back water use. Metro Phoenix uses about 33% less water than it did in 1980, even though Arizona's population has since doubled, thanks in large part to more efficient plumbing codes and recycling water. Ten of the largest Valley cities, including Phoenix, account for 11% of the state's water use even though they make up half the state's population.

Last year, several metro Phoenix cities raised water rates in response to the turmoil on the Colorado River.

"While Mesa has long prepared for these conditions, it’s imperative that we take any strain on our water sources seriously, as a city, and as responsible residents of our desert environment,” Mesa Mayor John Giles said in a statement.

A view of the confluence of the Little Colorado River, above, and the Colorado River, below, in the Grand Canyon on Dec. 1, 2021.

Mesa's plan, step by step

Mesa is in the first stage of its plan, which seeks to cut the city's water use by 5%.

The city manager has the authority to declare the first stage. But elected leaders have to sign off on future stages.

Stage two. Reduces 10% of water use.

  • No using drinkable water for watering lawns between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
  • Car washes are only allowed at commercial facilities, or with a bucket and a hose.
  • Discontinue decorative water and misters that use drinkable water.

Stage three. Reduces 15% of water use and implements one or more of the following:

  • Restaurants can only serve water when a customer requests it.
  • No one is allowed to let water run into the street or sidewalk.
  • Workers cannot use water at construction sites to control dust between 2 and 5 p.m.

Stage four. Reduces 20% of water use and implements one or more of the following:

  • Overseeding winter grass is prohibited.
  • Residential pools must be drained, or covered during the day. 
  • Sale of sod prohibited within the city limits.
  • Hotels limited to washing linens once per customer.
  • Large water users will have to pay a 25% surcharge on their monthly statements.
  • Car dealerships can wash vehicles once per week, based on a schedule published by the city.
The Sun City Festival community development borders a canal in Buckeye, Arizona on Dec. 11, 2019.

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Mesa isn't the only city with a plan, but its later stages are among the more stringent.

Phoenix and the surrounding cities have similar plans. Some are more strict than others.

The plan in Phoenix largely calls for reducing water use on city property and to "lead by example," while the plan in Peoria in the northwest Valley focuses on public education and raises the possibility of restrictions.

Phoenix also plans to take payments from Arizona in exchange for leaving a portion of its Colorado River water in Lake Mead next year.  

Scottsdale's plan is among the more strict — people are already seeing changes because of it. The city will no longer allow hauling water to neighboring unincorporated communities. That's left homeowners in the Rio Verde Foothills in the lurch, searching for a reliable water source. The issue is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

"Arizona has taken the approach that the most effective thing we can do is to instill a conservation ethic. We’ve been working on that for at least the last four decades and have made great improvements on that," said Warren Tenney, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. "Here in the desert, it’s a long haul."

The move to enact these municipal plans comes as regional leaders take a long, hard look at what is essentially the Southwest's water Bible. The 1922 Colorado River Compact established how much water would go to each state dependent on the Colorado River. But the river is a shadow of its former self.

Unprecedented drought is roiling the river. Climate change and chronic overallocation for years have tightened their collective grasp on the river's flow.

Nowhere is it more evident than at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the reservoirs that store the river's water for the Southwest. In Lake Mead, water levels have dropped so low that entire ghost towns have emerged.

California, Nevada rely on the same water as Arizona. Here's what they're doing

Arizona, California and Nevada all rely on the Colorado River water stored in Lake Mead.

If the lake's elevation continues to dip, Arizona's water director has said there should be "serious consideration" to enforce water restrictions across the Valley.

Arizona's approach to conservation has long prioritized education over enforced reductions. But California and Nevada for years have had restrictions in place.

The Las Vegas area has officials who will ticket residents for watering lawns on prohibited days. It has also restricted the amount of river water for new golf courses and restricted water use at existing ones.

And in the Los Angeles area, some 6 million residents can only water lawns one day per week. The Metropolitan Water District said it could ban outdoor water altogether as soon as September.

The sun sets over the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area near Page.

Arizona doesn't just depend on the Colorado River's water. It also relies on water from the Salt and Verde rivers, delivered through Salt River Project. Some areas have grown, controversially, largely on finite groundwater.

"How does that differ from what’s happening in Las Vegas? Las Vegas has one (major) water supply — the river," Tenney said. "As we all know, the river is under a lot of pressure right now."

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