Feb 12 2018Share

Lessons from Cape Town: Avoiding Arizona’s Day Zero

By Warren Tenney

Cape Town, home to 4 million people, may become the first major city in the world to run out of water as soon as May 11th.  Although half way around the globe, Arizona can still learn from the emergency bearing down on Cape Town. 

Day Zero is when Cape Town’s reservoirs reach 13.5 percent of their capacity and the city turns off its water distribution pipes to homes.  Residents will then have to line up at 200 sites around the city to pick up their ration of 6 gallons of water a day per person. Cape Town’s leaders now must tackle the risks of greater water shortages, a failing sanitation system, disease, social unrest and a collapsing economy.  

Why is Cape Town facing this situation? Cape Town’s reservoirs are drying up. There is no precedent in their records for three consecutive years this dry. The extreme drought is compounded by a 79 percent growth in population since 1995, while water storage capacity increased only 15 percent. Plans for developing new water supplies, including a desalination plant, are behind schedule. Steps were not taken early enough to head off this slow-moving disaster. Cape Town is now trying to catch up by lowering water pressure in its distribution system and investing in a far-reaching public information campaign to conserve water. These actions have helped to cut the city’s daily water consumption by 45 percent. If Cape Town can reduce consumption yet another 25 percent, they may make it to the rainy season that is supposed to begin in May – if the drought eases and it rains. 

Fortunately, we are very far from being in Cape Town’s situation. 

Does the situation in Cape Town have any lessons for us?  Absolutely. 

Our countdown to Day Zero starts the day we no longer work to improve water policy and we stop planning for and investing in our water resources, infrastructure and conservation. 

We cannot allow any weakening of Arizona’s forward-thinking Groundwater Management Act, which halts the depletion of finite groundwater, requires proof of a 100-year assured water supply before development can proceed, and mandates conservation. In fact, we must work persistently to strengthen and build upon that foundation, so our children and grandchildren have the water they will need and expect. Water security demands the kind of long-term thinking accomplished by Arizona's previous generations. We must not heed calls to erode our 100-year planning horizon by claiming we cannot accurately project or it is too difficult to prepare for the next century. Far from improving water management policy, bills currently before the legislature this session actually undermine it. 

We cannot be complacent. We cannot count on miracles. As Cape Town vividly demonstrates, the improbable can happen. Arizona is already in the midst of a record-breaking drought. We have to better adapt our water planning, infrastructure and policies to deal with uncertainties and extremes. This means being bold, setting aside political and parochial interests, and do all we can to prevent a shortage declaration on the Colorado River and the threat to the aquifers in growing rural communities. 

Last year’s above average winter lulled too many of us into thinking further action was not necessary to protect Lake Mead. Now, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is projecting an increased probability of a shortage in 2019 and a significant probability in 2020. Avoiding a shortage declaration on the Colorado River is crucial for Arizona. Arizona depends on the Colorado River for 41 percent of the state’s supplies, which is critical to the Phoenix and Tucson area municipalities, the state's Tribes, and Pinal and Yuma agriculture. Uncertainty and shortage will affect the entire state, its economy and how Arizona is perceived. We need to not just tout our previous successes to protect our water supplies in Lake Mead but to look at how we can build on those successes.  We – from the Governor and the Legislature to the Central Arizona Project board members and local water leaders – must be willing to take action to do more, before the issues become even more critical and Arizona is facing a crisis.  

Arizona has a history of strong water management. That foundation was laid by citizens, water managers and policy makers who understood the necessity of long-term planning and investment in our water supplies. They were determined and persistent, building consensus and making difficult decisions. They made sacrifices in the short term and permanent changes to ensure future security. They acted, driven by the knowledge that we simply cannot take risks when it comes to water. We should do no less.

Photo by Daniel Saaiman: Berg River Dam is the centerpiece of the Berg Water Project that stores winter rain water to supply Cape Town during the dry summer months. 

For 49 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

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