Day Zero and the Politics of Water

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Recently, I got an email from a producer of a national television news show, subject line, “On deadline for tonight!” (They always start by saying they’re on deadline.)

She was working on a story about “Day Zero” in the South African city of Cape Town. A metropolis of 3.7 million people, Cape Town is in the throes of a severe drought and close to exhausting its stored water supply. “Day Zero” is the projected date when the system runs dry, the taps are turned off and residents will be reduced to extremely limited rations of hauled water.

The news producer was interested in identifying Arizona cities which, “while not in dire straits,” are also vulnerable. “A little research” she wrote, had led her to Phoenix and other nearby cities that rely on water from the over-allocated, drought-stricken, climate change-impacted Colorado River. She asked me to confirm “in broad terms” that this was accurate and provide “a short synopsis (a few sentences) about the issues.”

It isn’t unusual for me to receive an inquiry like this. Seemingly any news story about a city experiencing water stress can trigger a journalist’s interest in what’s happening in the Phoenix area, and a little research will naturally take him or her to ominous news stories about the Colorado River.

Instead of sending the short confirming synopsis, as requested, I sent a 600-plus word reply explaining why comparing Phoenix to Cape Town was inapposite. Yes, Colorado River supplies are vulnerable, and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) has junior priority, so Central and Southern Arizona would be first in line for cuts. But that’s only part of the story. In the event of a shortage declaration, cuts would fall first on agricultural users of CAP water, not municipalities.

Moreover, Phoenix and other larger, older Valley cities have diverse water portfolios that include Salt-Verde system supplies, groundwater and reclaimed water (effluent) in addition to Colorado River water. In most of these cities, available water supplies exceed demand, a buffer against shortage. In addition, Valley cities, the state and other entities have been banking reserve water supplies. And, finally, Arizona, Mexico and the other Colorado Basin states have been working on measures to avoid a disruptive or catastrophic shortage scenario.

The news producer wrote back to ask my thoughts on what happened to make Phoenix’s situation so different from Cape Town’s. What did each city do or not do? I replied that I’m no expert on South Africa’s water issues, and the reasons Day Zero now looms are no doubt complex. But Cape Town sits on a coast and is surrounded by agriculture. That the city has become so severely water stressed when ocean desalination and water sharing appear to be viable may point to political dysfunction. At least one commentator blames partisan politics.

In enacting the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, Arizona tied growth in the Phoenix and Tucson areas to long-term water supplies. Over the years, cities and water utilities have made significant investments in water storage and, more recently, water re-use. As a result, Arizona water managers have long timelines for anticipating shortfalls and planning for future supplies. But this comparative water resilience didn’t come easily. Each step along the way required persistence, hard compromises and a shared commitment to future generations.

The Cape Town story ran without any mention of Phoenix. And since then, Day Zero has been pushed back to July, thanks to extreme conservation (residents are limited to 13 gallons per day), the donation of surplus water supplies by regional farmers and other measures. Cape Town is now rushing to complete construction on temporary ocean desalination plants to augment the water supply.

With luck, the antipodean winter wet season will bring relief.

Sarah Porter

Morrison Institute blogs are intended to further public discourse regarding key and timely issues via diverse voices, expertise and experiences – including, when appropriate, in pro-and-con format. Blogs do not represent any official position of Morrison Institute for Public Policy or Arizona State University.