A bleached "bathtub ring" visible on the steep rocky banks of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam on May 12, 2015, in Arizona's Lake Mead National Recreation Area. As severe drought grips parts of the western United States, Lake Mead, which was once the nation's largest reservoir, has seen its surface elevation drop below 1,080 feet above sea level, its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was constructed in the 1930s.
Why you should care
Arizona, worried by a drying Lake Mead, is waiting for a Senate champion to secure its water needs.
OZY and McClatchy are teaming up to deliver in-depth coverage of this year's most pivotal political campaigns in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections.
Things aren’t quite right at Lake Mead. When full, it’s the largest reservoir in the United States, a receptacle for the Colorado River that flows from Utah to Arizona, tapping the Nevada border at Hoover Dam before heading to California. But on a toasty Sunday, the cliff faces with bronzed tops reveal a crisis: They pale and whiten toward the bottom. This so-called bathtub ring effect has scientists, policymakers and voters across the West worried. And nowhere more so than in Arizona, where there’s a key election at stake.
A decades-long drought and increased evaporation owing to climate change have decimated water levels of Lake Mead, creating problems for the seven states that rely on it. But the concern is especially acute for Arizona, which relies on the river water to supply irrigation to countless farms, as well as to two-fifths of the Phoenix metropolitan area. If the reservoir falls below 1,075 feet above sea level — it’s currently at 1,077.75 feet — water shortages result, and Southern Arizona farmers would bear the brunt, losing “half of their water supply” overnight, says Paul Orme, a lawyer who represents agriculture-heavy Pinal County and other affected irrigation districts.
Typically such matters are handled by state laws and judicial decisions between states. But the Arizona governor and state legislature failed to find a solution this past session and have kicked the problem to the future. The courts are bogged down with interstate disputes over how to divvy up the cuts if water levels dip even lower. That means one of the country’s hottest U.S. Senate races could turn on how to quench the state’s thirst — that is, if any of the candidates manage to come up with a coherent plan.
The Democrats’ favorite is Kyrsten Sinema, a congresswoman who grew up in a gas station without running water. “Water is a long-term issue,” she told Colorado River Public Media in May, but she hasn’t released or published any policy plans to make sure the taps keep running in Arizona. Neither have her Republican opponents, including U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state senator Kelli Ward. When explaining her platform, Ward says she would keep an eye on interstate agreements while also exploring innovative solutions, pointing to a trip she took to Israel last November. “Seeing the way [Israelis] desalinate and collect water — they basically reuse over 90 percent of their water,” she says.
It’s a challenge elsewhere too. Even as the drought in California has slowly eased since 2015, when experts estimated it cost the state $1.84 billion, scars remain in the farms throughout the dusty Central Valley, where farmers protested the state’s strict water storage policies in 2016 with signs reading: “Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?” Dozens in the California delegation who helped pass a bill that year to steer more water to farmers and dam construction — including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — will have the $588 million water deal on their record as they face re-election in the November midterms.
Ordinary citizens care. Last year, Gallup reported that concerns over water pollution were at their highest since 2001, with 63 percent of Americans saying they worried a great deal about contamination. The Flint water crisis, as well as similar access and contamination concerns in Texas and Pennsylvania, have raised the profile of the issue. “Flint was a wake-up call, as it should have been,” says water expert Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor.
The Arizona candidates have precedent. For nearly two decades, Jon Kyl, a former Arizona water attorney, served as guardian of the state’s water needs from his Senate perch before retiring and being replaced by Jeff Flake in 2013. Considering the Department of the Interior’s role in determining interstate water policy, there is “huge federal legislation” regarding the Colorado River, says Kathy Ferris, a former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Plus, senators can strong-arm lawmakers to “confront the potential shortages that are upcoming,” says Glennon.
But as Kyl’s former seat becomes open again, his heir apparent isn’t clear. Sinema says she wants to “pick up” where he left off. Water policy, though, is complicated, making it hard to tout from the stump, concedes Ward, potentially Sinema’s opponent in November. Its importance has been overshadowed by the immigration debate, the future of migrant families separated from their children, a border wall and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Combined with typical economic angst and lingering arguments over the Affordable Care Act, there just isn’t much of a spotlight on water concerns. “It’s not to the point where it’s an easily digestible talking point,” says Chuck Coughlin, a political adviser for former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants.
Still, politicians could gain from addressing the topic. Inevitably Sinema, who has represented a downtown Phoenix district since becoming the first openly bisexual person elected to the U.S. Congress in 2013, will be painted by Republicans as a city dweller prioritizing urban needs. On one campaign trip through southern Arizona, the Tucson native listed water as one of the region’s unique needs — particularly caring for “our agriculture community, ensuring we have a water supply for the future.” Even if there isn’t much “daylight” between her stances and others, Democratic political consultant Chad Campbell says her outreach builds trust with those voters.
Water becomes an issue not of partisan belief, but of competency. On that point, McSally, who assumed office in 2015, can also benefit from highlighting her experience already tackling some of these issues in Washington. She worked with the federal Bureau of Reclamation on preserving Arizona water, supporting everything from WaterSmart Grants and Watershed Act programs to eradication plans for quagga and zebra mussels that produce toxins harmful to people and marine life in Lake Mead. “In the Senate, Martha will continue these efforts,” says McSally spokesperson Torunn Sinclair.
Ignorance simply won’t work, considering Arizona’s past with water scarcity. “It was the last continental state to join the union for a reason — it was uninhabitable prior to the building of those dams,” Coughlin notes. Arizona can’t afford to forget that past. Ahead of the polls in November, neither can the candidates vying for the state’s love.