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Colorado River shortage to hit Central Arizona farmers hardest

As drought maintains its relentless grip on Arizona and water levels drop on the Colorado River storage reservoirs, Nancy Caywood is watching closely.

Caywood’s family has been growing mostly cotton and alfalfa on about 400 acres outside Casa Grande in central Arizona’s Pinal County for 90 years. This year, the San Carlos Irrigation District won’t be able to sell her any water, and with no access to Colorado River water, the family’s alfalfa is dying.

They didn’t even plant corn, she said, because they knew it would be fruitless. About 125 or their 40-plus acres is fallow, the rest failing.

“We have no cotton. It all died. We’ve got no alfalfa,” Caywood said.

This year, they’ll pay taxes and a water contract with San Carlos via her son’s corn crop, which he will grow using Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project, she said.

The Caywoods are not alone.

The backbone of Arizona’s agriculture industry is the Central Arizona Project, which manages a 336-mile canal delivering 1.6 million acre-feet of water to Native American tribes, municipal water companies that serve homes and irrigation districts, which deliver the water to farmers.

Seven states from Utah to California share the Colorado River’s roughly 15 million acre-feet of water annually. But in the 100 years since the states agreed how to share the water, it has become clear that the river is over-allocated. By Aug. 16, for the first time the Bureau of Reclamation is expected to declare a Tier 1 shortage, which means about a third of Arizona’s 1.6 million acre-feet — 512,000 acre-feet - won’t be there.

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“Most of that pain is going to be felt by Pinal County agricultural interests,” said Chelsea McGuire, the Arizona Farm Bureau government liaison, referring to a sprawling rural county between Phoenix and Tucson.

Historically, Arizona farmers pumped water from aquifers, but that forced the water table down so far the ground dropped more than 20 feet in some places.

So in 1980, Arizona passed the Groundwater Management Act, which allowed farmers to access Colorado River water in exchange for reduced groundwater pumping through 2030. Now farmers rely on that Colorado River water, McGuire said.

“When they lose access to that surface water, the CAP water, they’re going to lose about 300,000 acre-feet of water, which is essentially half of their production capacity, overnight,” McGuire said of Pinal County farmers.

It’s no small matter.

There are 760 farms in Pinal County growing cattle and calves, alfalfa to feed them, cotton, corn and a wide array of other crops. A Tier 1 shortage would spark a $66 million loss in crop sales and a broader $104 million loss in the county economy, including elimination of more than 200 jobs, McGuire said.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of Arizona’s water goes to plants.

About 74% of it goes to agriculture, for cattle and growing crops, and 20% goes to homes. Of the residential portion, about 70% is used outdoors, mostly for watering lawns and landscaping, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The state gets about 36% of its water from the Colorado River. About 40% is groundwater, 21% in-state surface water and 3% comes from recycling water from those sources, according the ADWR.

Who gets which water in Arizona is determined by a complex array of laws, contracts and intergovernmental agreements on every level.

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At the top is the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 law that determined which states among Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California get what. Arizona’s share of the 15 million acre-feet is 2.8 million acre-feet, about half of which is delivered in the CAP canal and half used along the river’s main stem.

The Lower Basin states are already in a Tier 0 shortage, which pulled 192,000 acre-feet of water out of the CAP system this year. The water was taken from the agricultural users.

Lake Mead’s surface elevation dropping to 1,075 feet would trigger a Tier 1 shortage, which would mean a loss of a total 512,000 acre-feet for the state, most of which would come from non-Native American agricultural users, said Ken Seasholes, the CAP resource planning and analysis manager.

Within Arizona, the highest priority goes to tribes and municipal and industrial users that serve residents and industry on long-term contracts. Seasholes called the 100-year contracts “essentially permanent.” After that comes non-Indian agriculture pool, Seasholes said.

“When we have a full supply, there’s even more water above that, we have water for underground storage,” he said.
Eventually, Arizona farmers and ranchers will get even less water.

In 1980, when Arizona created the Department of Water Resources to preserve groundwater, farmers agreed to dramatically cut back groundwater pumping in exchange for low prices on Colorado River water brought hundreds of miles from the main stem.

Then in 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which restructured the priority system among Colorado River water users in the state. The law turned over 197,000 acre-feet of agricultural water to Native American tribes, with the largest shares going to the Gila River Indian Community (102,000 acre-feet) and the Tohono O’odham Nation (28,000).

Another 163,000 acre-feet of water were set aside for other tribal settlements, including 6,400 for the Navajo Nation, where livestock watering holes have dried up, leaving horses to die of thirst. That claim and those of eight other tribes remains unresolved.

In recent years the state has developed a plan to deal with expected shortages, Seasholes said.

Some cities have agreed to send portions of their CAP allocations to Pinal County users, and in recent years some cities and towns have allowed the Central Arizona Project to leave some of their water in Lake Mead as “intentionally created excess water,” Seasholes said.

“These mitigation efforts have at least tempered some of those immediate impacts on users,” Seasholes said.

Ultimately, these measures will make up 105,000 acre-feet of the 300,000 acre-foot loss.

People in other regions may wonder why farmers grow crops at all in parts of Arizona that get less than 12 inches of rain annually.

McGuire points to Pinal County for the answer. Pinal County is in the top 2% nationwide in agricultural sales, and cotton sales are in the top 1%. Gallon for gallon, water in Pinal County gets you more cotton or alfalfa or corn than it does in wetter climes, she said.

“The structure that we’ve set up is vastly more effective and efficient and high-yielding than the agricultural economies of many other states,” she said.

As the drought continues, the farmers that evolve will stay in business, other won’t, McGuire said.

What happens in the future depends, quite literally, on the weather.

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“What nobody can really tell is whether this is going to be the status of things going forward into the future, or whether we will ever get above that Tier 1 shortage level again,” McGuire said.

In the near future, the assumption is that at least a Tier 1 shortage will be around.

“And that is going to put people out of business, because at the end of the day you can only squeeze so much blood from a stone. This isn’t something that can be fully mitigated, and you’re not just going to see farmers hurting, you’re going to see the entire community reeling from the effects of this,” she said.

Farmers are now growing alternative crop hybrids, improving wells, using crop monitors and laser-leveling fields to save water at a much faster rate than before, she said.

Even if Pinal County farmers could pump 300,000 acre-feet of groundwater to make up the loss, they couldn’t use it. Much of the irrigation system now relies on positive pressure from the CAP system. Groundwater won’t work anymore, McGuire said.
And as farmers transition to a future with less water, they can’t just grow whatever they want.

“If there’s nobody out there who wants to buy your low-water use wheat crop or your low-water use barley crop, then it doesn’t really make sense for you to invest in that crop,” McGuire said.

The drought has deeply affected the Caywoods' farm. Just down the road sits the Eleven Mile Corner Gin, a cotton processing plant her dad opened. That gin, a small operator in Pinal County, closed in in 2019 and the family sold it.

“I think they’re thinking of putting a pizza place in there or something,” Caywood said of the industrial complex.

Although the impacts of the drought and river shortage will be deep and broad, the situation won’t end farming in the dusty fields of Pinal County. Too much is at stake, and nobody wants it to go away, McGuire said.

“Pinal County agriculture is never going to look like it does right now again, but it’s going to be there,” she said.

The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to declare the Tier 1 shortage Aug. 15.

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Brad Poole/Courthouse News

Caywood Farms near Casa Grande Arizona closed this cotton gin in 2019. Nancy Caywood called the abandoned gin a victim of the drought.

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