Drought Information

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In an era of climate change, one advantage Phoenix has over others is this: desert cities know that drought is a constant threat, and plan accordingly. Long-range planning, investments in water supply alternatives, and a history of successes in water conservation have allowed Phoenix to weather every drought without resorting to mandatory water use restrictions or prohibitions. Phoenix is built for drought. However, the city is prepared to establish such restrictions in future years if absolutely necessary to ensure the safety and health of our residents.

 Learn about Drought and Climate Change.

Though Phoenix has more than an adequate supply of water in non-shortage years, residents and business owners are encouraged to embrace a desert lifestyle.

Phoenix Water Services and Drought

In Arizona, the current drought is approaching 15 years in length and has surpassed the worst drought in more than 110 years of official recordkeeping. Beyond the written record, tree ring research reveals that 20 to 30 year droughts have occurred several times over the past 1,000 years in the major watersheds serving the city of Phoenix and surrounding municipalities.

During the current drought, Phoenix has been able to manage its available water supplies to meet the community's water demands. However, this record-setting drought is a warning. Given that we can't accurately predict when the drought will end, we all need to become more aware about the facts of drought and what the future possibilities and impacts from drought could be.

Though Phoenix has adequate water supplies to meet all of the community's needs even if drought lingers for years, it is important to be aware of steps that can be taken now to avert potential future impacts from severe, sustained drought. This website provides an overview of the facts about the current and possible future conditions of drought and what actions can be taken to reduce the impact of continuing drought.

Phoenix's Water Supply Portfolio

The City of Phoenix has built a diverse portfolio of water supplies,  including: surface water, groundwater, and effluent or “reclaimed” water. For normal years (in which our supplies are unaffected by drought), more than 95 percent of customer drinking water demand is met with surface water from two major sources. Salt River and Verde River water is delivered through the ​​ Salt River Project (SRP) and Colorado River water is delivered via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal. The remaining volume (less than five percent) is groundwater pumped from city-owned wells. Phoenix reuses nearly all of its reclaimed water for agricultural irrigation, local power generation and wetland restoration, in exchange for surface water supplies through the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Drought and Our Source Watersheds

The watersheds that supply surface water to Phoenix are much larger than the city or the metropolitan area as a whole. The Salt and Verde River watersheds encompass 13,000 square miles in the eastern and north central portions of Arizona. The Colorado River watershed encompasses all or portions of seven states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona).​

NOAA National Drought Monitor Map (See current U.S. drought conditions)

These watersheds receive precipitation mainly in the form of snow in the mountains. When there is insufficient snow, runoff flows are low, soil moisture decreases, and drought conditions exist both on the watershed and in the desert valleys.

Reservoir storage on the river systems helps balance out naturally occurring fluctuations in snowfall and runoff from year to year, to better match availability of water with water demand. Long, continuous periods of reduced snowfall and scarce rains, however, have a cumulative effect on the reservoir storage and reduce the ability of the storage system to even out the good and bad precipitation years.

How is Phoenix Faring?​

Phoenix is built for drought. Due to visionary water supply planning efforts for more than 100 years, Phoenix has successfully managed available water supplies in support of public health, economic opportunity and quality of life. Abundant (though currently diminishing) storage in major reservoirs on the Colorado River and on the Salt and Verde Rivers and the ability to pump groundwater has allowed Phoenix to continue to thrive despite the recent drought conditions.

Water demand (based on the overall use per capita) decreased by roughly 30 percent over the last 20 years. This can be attributed to a number of factors. They include new homes built with low water use plumbing fixtures and appliances, new landscape restrictions requiring desert-adapted plants, and water conservation education programs. We are proud that our customers embrace a desert lifestyle.

Though drought has affected both the Salt/Verde and Colorado River systems, the Salt/Verde watershed is much more sensitive to drought given the smaller watershed size. This smaller size means that local weather conditions have a greater impact on water yield. On larger regional watersheds, like the Colorado River, localized weather phenomenon has less impact on the watershed as a whole.

Extremely low storage conditions in the Salt and Verde River reservoirs prompts SRP to reduce allocations to users. This has happened only four times since construction of Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River was completed in 1911.  Fortunately, the City of Phoenix has access to some of the most senior rights in the SRP system, so the impacts of these reductions on Phoenix's water supplies have been minimal. To provide further water supply security, the City of Phoenix has invested in its own storage capacity on the Salt and Verde Rivers.  As of July 1, 2015, the City held over 140,000 acre-feet of water in these facilities that can be used in the event of reductions in Phoenix's other supplies.

To date, allocation reductions have not been necessary on the Colorado River system due to the more substantive storage capacity. However, as result of extended drought conditions in the region, the storage system on the Colorado River is just over half full. There is an increasing probability that a Colorado River shortage could be declared as early as 2017.  The City’s Colorado River allocation would not be impacted by such a shortage, but it would likely result in reductions in the Colorado River water available to agricultural customers. Fortunately, the City of Phoenix, along with other local and State water resource managers, have prepared well for possibility that a future shortage could impact our CAP supplies. In 1996, the Arizona state legislature created the Arizona Water Banking Authority, which has stored more than two million acre-feet of water underground specifically for offsetting future CAP municipal shortages.  The City itself has stored more than 182,000 acre-feet of water (a combination of its unused CAP supplies and reclaimed effluent) that can be recovered in the event of a future shortage. In addition, the City is implementing a program to increase our ability to pump groundwater from city wells to help offset future reductions in surface water supplies​.

In the fall of 2014, the City of Phoenix entered into an innovative partnership with the City of Tucson to further protect against shortage conditions on the Colorado River system. Through this partnership, Phoenix will store its currently unused Colorado River water in Tucson aquifers. In future times of shortage on the Colorado River, Tucson will pump Phoenix's stored water out of its aquifers, and in exchange deliver a like amount of Colorado River water to City of Phoenix surface water treatment plants.

Also in the fall of 2014, the City of Phoenix formally created the Colorado River Resiliency Fund within the capital improvement program of the Water Services Department. This fund was set up to ensure proper investment in the exchanges, storage agreements, partnerships and other mechanisms that will provide resiliency on the Colorado River.

Future Uncertainties

Although Phoenix currently benefits from a diversified water supply portfolio, we are not immune from drought. It is possible reductions in allocations of Colorado River Water to Arizona, or future more severe reductions in Salt and Verde river allocations, could result in Phoenix incurring a supply shortage. While determining the precise timing and nature of these impacts is not possible, identification of factors and uncertainties that bear on drought conditions is an important first step in preparing for potential water supply shortfalls. Key uncertainties are:

  • Growth rate within our service area;
  • How the seven Colorado River Basin states, and groups of water users within Arizona, will respond to system shortages;
  • The degree to which customer demands can be reduced to meet drought conditions; and
  • How long a drought will last.

The City of Phoenix works collaboratively with the State Department of Water Resources, the State's official representative among the seven basin states of the Colorado River, to improve the resiliency​ of the Colorado River. Among other concepts, Phoenix is supportive of Colorado River System Conservation programs, through which water can be conserved for the benefit of the entire system, and not just for one individual entity or user.

The Growth Factor

Most new development utilizes low water use fixtures and landscaping. Thus, the average household water use of a new house is less than the average household water use of existing houses more than 10 years old. Commercial and industrial uses are also more efficient than past uses. The result is that in the city of Phoenix, the rate at which total water consumption is increasing is lower than our growth rate. To illustrate, the total water produced by Phoenix for its customers in 2014 was the lowest it's been since 1995, despite a 30% increase in population (340,000 people) during the same period of time.

Since the early 1990's, Phoenix has required new development to pay a water resources acquisition fee to help fund new water supply acquisition and development. This means growth forces are offsetting the cost of the acquisition and development of new water supplies. In a drought situation, such water supply development may prove critical. Thus, growth "pays its own way" in ensuring that it does not increase the city's vulnerability to drought.​

Through long-range water resource planning efforts, the city continually strives to ensure that the demands can be met far into the future. These efforts involve continuing to provide our customers with the education and tools they need to embrace a desert lifestyle, management of our existing supplies and acquisition of new supplies. As the drought deepens, this becomes especially critical in protecting our local economy.​

Shortage Sharing on the Colorado River

Under the current "Law of the River," the Colorado River's flow is divided by compact between upper basin and lower basin states. The lower basin states – California, Nevada and Arizona – share an entitlement of 7.5 million acre feet of water per year from the River.  Additional water is released from Lake Mead to assure a minimum delivery of 1.5 million acre feet to Mexico in compliance with the U. S.-Mexican Treaty. Arizona is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water. However, about 1.7 million acre-feet of this allocation has junior standing on the system. What that means is that a shortage in the lower basin allocation dictates that Arizona is among the first to be cut back. California's (4.4 million acre-foot entitlement will be affected only after Arizona loses its entire 1.7 acre-feet of "junior" status water (more than half of the State's total allocation).

The CAP diverts about 1.5 million acre-feet of the state's Colorado River allocation into central and southern Arizona. If Arizona's allocation is cut back, the CAP supplies and other junior-status water uses along the Colorado River will be curtailed first. Within the CAP, annual Excess Water contracts will be cut back first, followed by Non-Indian Agricultural entitlements. Water available under the cities' contracts will not be curtailed until the CAP supplies are cut by at least one-third (or about 500,000 acre-feet). 

Were this to happen, the City would depend on increased pumping from its own wells, the exchange agreement with the City of Tucson, and water previously stored in local aquifers through the Arizona Water Banking Authority.

City Water Distribution Infrastructure

The City of Phoenix water supply system has been designed specifically to provide water during shortage conditions. The water system design allows flexibility in how to respond as drought conditions change. The growth of ou​r city and recent drought conditions have prompted a re-evaluation of the capabilities of this system under extreme shortages. The city's Water Resource Plan Update presents an evaluation of several potential future drought scenarios as well as numerous strategies for responding to drought. The City also regularly updates its Water System Master Plan. These plans call for additional water system features and water supplies to increase reliability during water supply shortfalls.

Long Term Objective

The basic strategy of the Phoenix Water Services Department is to ensure that adequate supplies are available to meet Phoenix's existing and new water demands, and to minimize the effects of drought on our economy and quality of life. Under normal conditions (including short-term dry periods), Phoenix has adequate sustainable water supplies to meet the State of Arizona's 100-Year Assured Water Supply standard. 

It is possible, however, that during long, extreme drought conditions, Phoenix would have to institute mandatory water use reductions.  It is the City's goal to notify our customers well in advance of such reductions and to minimize the impacts to quality of life and economic opportunity as much as possible. 

Drought Response Strategy

Recognizing that long-term drought is possible, and that available water supplies could be reduced during a drought, Phoenix has developed a long-term drought response strategy to better position the city to respond to changing conditions. It is only prudent for the city to plan responses for all drought stages should they become necessary in future years.

The city of Phoenix will accomplish this by doing the following:

  • Manage our water supply portfolio to meet the community's water needs today;
  • Increase efforts to plan for water needs under conditions of continuing drought;
  • Educate our customers about the situation now and possible future conditions, and;
  • Help our customers plan and implement conservation measures they can undertake now to soften the impacts of a more lengthy and severe drought.

While conservation is something all desert dwellers should engage in at all times, it is particularly important to managing water supplies during drought conditions. Preparing and planning for drought today will ensure the proper level of drought response in the coming years.

By being careful about how you use water you can help slow down the effect drought has on our water supply. There are a number of websites with information on water conservation.

Visit the water conservation sections​ on the City's website to learn ab​out a variety of ways to conserve water. 

Learn more about Drought and Climate Change

Also, the Water - Use It Wisely website lists more than one-hundred water saving tips for our area.