PHOENIX (AP) -- The federal government is prepared to impose water restrictions along the Colorado River if Arizona and the other states that use it don't come up with a plan of their own.
Without an alternative plan, existing laws could trigger measures by 2007 that could see Arizona lose one-third or more of the water that supplies Phoenix and Tucson.
The states insist they are making progress on a plan aimed at avoiding shortages and don't intend to let the government take over. Representatives of the seven states have met several times and believe they can move quickly now.
"People ask why we don't already have a plan," said Sid Wilson, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which carries Colorado River to Phoenix and other cities. "Well, all the information the states have relied on is based on about 100 years of record, and now we're in a drought more severe than anything in those 100 years would indicate.
"We always thought we wouldn't have to worry about a shortage for 20 or 30 years," Wilson added. "It's a whole new ballgame."
The Colorado River, which supplies water to more than 25 million people in seven states, is in its fifth consecutive year of drought.
This year it will deliver barely half the water it usually does to Lake Powell, a key reservoir that now sits at its lowest level in more than 30 years.
Hydrologists say that if the drought persists and runoff into the Colorado continues at such low levels, Lake Powell could virtually dry up by the end of 2007. That would pit the seven states against each other in a bitter water war.
The upper-basin states -- Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico -- face some tough decisions if Lake Powell drops too low.
Under the seven-state river compact, the four upper-basin states must supply Arizona, Nevada and California with a set amount of water each year.
Lake Powell helps them meet that requirement, but if it continues to drain, those upper-basin states might be forced to give up some of their own allocation.
Wilson said the states are trying to avoid those situations. Ideas discussed include shifting water from farms to cities, perhaps by paying growers to fallow land for a season or two, and reducing the water lost to inefficiency.
Arizona also strongly supports the operation of the Yuma desalting plant, which could allow the government to leave up to 100,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead each year.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)