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Surprise water supplies not in danger

Official: City in good shape despite drought

Posted 5/4/21

The state is mired in a two-decade-long drought, but most Surprise residents wouldn’t even know the difference judging by their normal water consumption.

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Subscriber Exclusive

Surprise water supplies not in danger

Official: City in good shape despite drought


The state is mired in a two-decade-long drought, but most Surprise residents wouldn’t even know the difference judging by their normal water consumption.

“Nobody is getting their water shut off tomorrow, right?” joked District 5 Councilman Jack Hastings at an April 20 work session discussion over drought preparedness. “We’re not going to get any calls of showers cutting off halfway through or anything like that?”

The answer is no, said Surprise Water Resource Management Assistant Director Michael Boule.

That’s despite the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project officials issuing a joint news release last month that warned the state would be moved into another drought tier that would bring water reductions for CAP customers.

A “Tier 1” declaration has been threatened for the last decade. That’s when Lake Mead, the reservoir that drives the CAP system, drops to 1,075 feet above sea level.

When that happens Arizona’s annual allotment would be reduced by 512,000 acre feet. An acre foot is equal to 326,000 gallons, which could flood a football field.

The bureau updates a 24-month study each month to determine how much snowpack runoff will be coming to the major reservoirs.

Based on the April study it appears very likely that the bureau will declare a Tier 1 shortage for next year, said Lisa Atkins, a member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board of Directors.

But Surprise residents can be assured of the city’s water supply, Mr. Boule said

“A Tier 1 shortage declaration will have no effect on Surprise’s water allocation or its deliveries to customers,” he said. “Although there will be no immediate impact to municipal water supplies, Surprise remains committed to water resource management and its water conservation measures. We recognize this is an opportunity to increase water conservation awareness.” 

But even though the state as a whole will be affected by the drought next year, Surprise residents probably won’t know the difference.

“Shortage on the Colorado River does not mean shortage for Surprise’s customers at the tap,” Mr. Boule said.

First ever

Ms. Atkins said a “Tier 1” designation would be the first ever on the Colorado River if it happens.

It’s not hard to see why.

Between April 1 and April 27, Surprise only had 0.07 inches of rain.

Maricopa County is down 0.71 inches of rain from normal this year. It’s already the 44th driest year on record.

For Arizona as a whole, last year was the second driest calendar year ever and its driest since 1956.

If a shortage comes, it will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the river, falling largely to central Arizona agricultural users.

“These impacts are painful,” Ms. Atkins told the Surprise City Council during a virtual presentation at the April 20 work session.

Mr. Boule said Surprise would not experience cuts to its supply unless a Tier 2b declaration is called for. That would be if Lake Mead dropped below 1,045 feet, which is two steps after Tier 1.

However, Mr. Boule said the city is prepared for the possibility of that shortage through years of planning.

“A Tier 2b declaration will not impact Surprise’s ability to deliver water to its customers,” Mr. Boule said.

Surprise Councilman Chris Judd asked Ms. Atkins how close to things are to getting to a Tier 2 level.

“I hesitate to project what the numbers are going to look like,” Ms. Atkins said. “But the [drought contingency] plans that we have address those. So, we’re prepared to do that as well.”

Mayor Skip Hall said the state may need some divine intervention.

“We’re all hoping that we don’t go to the next tier, but Mother Nature has to help us,” Mayor Hall said.

History tour

The drinking water out of Surprise taps comes from groundwater. Reclaimed water is used for agricultural and landscape irrigation. The surface water from CAP is used for irrigation and to recharge Surprise’s groundwater supplies.

“Surprise is not directly delivering its Colorado River allocation,” Mr. Boule said. “Instead, we use our Central Arizona Project water allocation to recharge the aquifer, storing water for future groundwater pumping.”

The Central Arizona Project is a 336-mile aqueduct that stretches from Lake Havasu all the way to Tucson.

The canal began deliveries in Maricopa County in 1985 and also serves Pinal and Pima counties. Today, it delivers more than 500 billion gallons of water each year over 23,790 square miles.

About 80% of Arizona’s population gets its water this way, including most of Surprise.

CAP has its own storage reservoir at Lake Pleasant with the New Waddell Dam and Waddell Pump Generation Station.

The city is currently allocated about 10,249 acre feet of water from CAP annually.

In the CAP system, Arizona is in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River Basin.

The Lower Basin states include California and Nevada. All three in the Lower Basin combined receive 7.5 million acre feet each year.

The Colorado River supplies about 40% of Arizona’s total water supply.

CAP’s supply comes from Lake Mead at the Arizona-Utah border. The lake is currently at 40% capacity because of a low snowpack.

Snow is needed because the melted water must trickle down the system to the Lower Basin reservoir, which serves Surprise and other Arizona areas.

“I always tell people that in addition to praying for rain during monsoon season in Arizona, please pray for rain and a great snowpack in the Upper Basin,” Ms. Atkins said. “Don’t forget the Upper Basin in your prayers.”

Total preparation

The Colorado River Basin currently is under what is referred to as the “2007 Guidelines.”

A drought contingency plan was added on top off the 2007 guidelines.

“In 2007, when the guidelines were adopted the risk for a long drought were understated,” Ms. Atkins said. “Additional measures were necessary to prevent the reservoirs from falling into critically low levels.”

Ms. Atkins said the drought contingency plan will help the state’s residents be assured that future water supplies are more reliable and secure.

Plus, Ms. Atkins said CAP is ready for a reduction if and when it happens. Like Surprise, she said CAP has been preparing for this possibility for years. She said CAP is looking for “innovative and effective solutions to sustain Arizona’s Colorado River supply.”

“That’s the beauty of living in the desert is you think about those things ahead of time,” Ms. Atkins said.

It’s an issue the state will likely always face.

“We live in a desert and water is essential,” Mr. Hastings said. “This seems like a broader issue that doesn’t just face Surprise.”

To follow drought conditions, log on to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System at

Jason Stone can be reached at