Protecting the Colorado River with System Conservation

Published Oct 25, 2021

When talking about drought, shortage, and water in Arizona, conservation is often mentioned. While we understand the significance and importance of traditional conservation efforts, another form of conservation that is frequently discussed is system conservation, but what does that mean?

While traditional water conservation promotes using water efficiently to reduce water usage at home or work, system conservation focuses on a specific water source like the Colorado River. It's about reducing the amount of water used to offset declining water levels, thus protecting the water system's future and conserving it for the benefit of all users.

With all the current discussion about the Colorado River, it has been said that we need to conserve more water or reduce demand, which is all related to doing more system conservation. System conservation is an important tool that the seven Colorado River Basin States and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation use to protect the Colorado River water supply and safeguard it against continued drought and increasingly hotter and drier conditions. System conservation is a key focus as Arizona, California, and Nevada water managers are working to keep Lake Mead from dropping to critical levels that would trigger more profound levels of shortage and threaten the health of the Colorado River system.

System conservation, specifically relating to the Colorado River, has been taking place for years. It started as a USBR Pilot Program back in 2014 and was created for the sole purpose of increasing storage levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead as a benefit to the Colorado River system. The system conservation program was unique as it was a collective effort by the federal government and major urban water suppliers to pay for water-saving measures strictly designed to create "system water" for the benefit of keeping Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels.

Arizona has been actively involved in system conservation as its water users have willingly agreed to leave water in Lake Mead to help protect the Colorado River and our water future.  Since 2014, Arizona water users have preserved over 305,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead through system conservation to protect the Colorado River system.

In January 2019, the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP ) was implemented to require the Basin States to take additional steps to take lesser amounts of water as reservoir levels decline. DCP promotes projects that achieve system conservation, reduce demand, and stabilize water levels in Lake Mead. By contributing water to Lake Mead now and using less water sooner, we reduce the risk of more painful cutbacks later.

The most recent effort of system conservation is a project created in partnership with the Central Arizona Project (CAP), USBR, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority to financially support the Palo Verde Irrigation District in California to conserve up to 180,000 acre-feet of water over the next three years, amounting to about a 3-foot increase in Lake Mead's water level. The conserved water and other conservation efforts could help keep Lake Mead levels high enough to avoid deeper shortages.

Along with system conservation, Arizona’s contribution under DCP, and through other efforts to date, Arizona has left 1.4 million acre-feet of water in our State’s effort to protect Lake Mead.  DCP and system conservation throughout the Colorado River Basin have helped save 40 feet of water in Lake Mead since 2014, thus putting us in a better situation as we go into a Tier 1 shortage. Additional system conservation efforts will need to be pursued as Arizona and the other Basin States grapple with the serious condition of the Colorado River and work to avoid deeper shortages that risk the health of the system.

While it's important to understand the difference between system conservation and traditional conservation, they both certainly play a critical role in our sustainability here in Arizona. As we continually say – conservation matters, and it does make a difference, regardless of form.

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For over 50 years, the 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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