More than two decades of dry winters and drying Colorado River reservoirs will finally produce a long-feared landscape of drier farms in central Arizona starting this month.
Desert farmers, especially the 900 or more in Pinal County, start the new year with massively reduced allocations from the canal that delivers water hundreds of miles from the river.
Their irrigation districts are using state money to drill new wells to replace some of the losses with groundwater, another resource that’s at a premium in the fast-growing region. But it won’t be enough to offset the reductions, and so the growers who produce the region’s cotton, alfalfa and other crops are paring back their plantings across thousands of acres.
Noah Hiscox, a Coolidge farmer for 44 years, is among the growers who expect to fallow much of their land. He’s hoping he’ll be able to plant just a quarter of the 3,000 acres he farms. Fallowing is a common practice for soil health, but not at this scale.
“In the Bible, it tells you to rest your crops every seventh year,” Hiscox said. “That would be pretty wonderful if we had enough water to plant six-sevenths of our land.”
The shared pain he expects from fewer plantings will ripple across the county, through supply stores and equipment dealers, with on-farm layoffs and falling tax receipts.
Pinal County farms are losing river water this year because Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, dropped low enough to trigger cutbacks under a multi-state drought plan. Farm groups have said it could mean fallowing 30% to 40% of the acreage typically planted there.
The state has provided $40 million to help drill wells, but that work has been slow to unfold, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the state Department of Water Resources Director, perhaps due to the pandemic, labor shortages and supply-chain issues. He expects Pinal County’s fallowing could prove steeper than expected this year.
Hiscox farms in the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District, which originally drew only water from the San Carlos Reservoir on the Gila River southeast of Globe. That reservoir is now roughly 3% full.
The district gained access to Colorado River water with the construction of the Central Arizona Project decades ago, and last year was entitled to about 25,000 acre-feet from the Colorado, with each acre-foot equaling 326,000 gallons. This year, under the federal shortage declaration, the district will get less than 8,700 acre-feet.
Pinal County:First-ever shortage on the Colorado River will bring cuts for Arizona farmers
Unless winter storms dump a lot more snow in the Rockies than last winter, the San Carlos district expects Lake Mead to keep falling, bringing a deeper shortage that will zero out its share of the Colorado for 2023.
In all, Arizona will forgo 592,000 acre-feet in 2022, more than a fifth of its share of the Colorado. For now, municipal water users are largely spared cutbacks.
Though the pain will be spread among growers from west of Phoenix to the Tucson area, the worst of it will fall on Pinal County, where agriculture is critical to the economy. A 2018 University of Arizona study found that an expected reduction of 300,000 acre-feet would cost the county up to $104 million in sales and 480 jobs from the county’s $2.3 billion farm economy. It ranked Pinal in the top 1% of U.S. counties for production of cotton and cottonseed, cattle and milk. County farms also grow abundant alfalfa and barley to support livestock, as well as wheat.
Beyond the hit to the state’s broader economy, the Arizona Farm Bureau suggests Phoenix-area residents should care about the implications for two ‘D’ words: dairy and dust.
Pinal County crops feed cows that produce the region’s milk. “We know it was on the farm less than 72 hours before we put it in our refrigerators,” said Chelsea McGuire, the bureau’s director of government relations. Less local dairy means less freshness and a less assured supply.
Fallowed croplands will also give rise to more dust clouds in a county that already struggles with particulate pollution in the air.
“There are going to be some real detrimental impacts,” McGuire said, “not just economically but environmentally.”
The good news is that cotton prices are up, Hiscox said. He grows that crop, and also farms alfalfa for livestock feed, and varieties of wheat and ancient grains for flour mills and bakeries, including one that sells bread to Whole Foods markets around the country.
The bad news is that other prices, such as fuel and fertilizer, also have risen.
“It’s going to be a struggle,” Hiscox said. “The only chance we have is it needs to rain and snow.”
Even if that wouldn’t swell the Colorado’s reservoirs, it could quickly refill the San Carlos reservoir on the Gila.
New groundwater also will help, he said, but it can’t fully make up for the loss of river water. Climate scientists and government water managers are forecasting continued water losses due to warming, but Hiscox maintains hope that an old pattern of alternating dry and wet periods will prevail.
“That’s what we’re praying for, is the end of the cycle,” he said.
Drought plan:Arizona joins Nevada, California in a pledge to slash Colorado River use
As he spoke, though, the Gila River drainage and the rest of Arizona were considered either abnormally dry or in drought, and forecasters predicted the prevailing La Niña conditions were likely to produce a relatively dry winter, at least within the state. Predictions for the Rockies were less clear.
Hiscox expects farmers to shift some of their plantings, starting with eliminating corn, which needs steady water applications. As for cotton, a crop that critics frequently target as a water waster, it grows better and at higher quality in Arizona than elsewhere in America’s Cotton Belt, he said, and is essential.
“Everything I’m wearing is cotton," he said. "It’s used in your tires. It’s in your furniture. The seed is used for animal feed.”
He laser-levels his fields to allow even application of gravity-fed water across them. This technique saves water over traditional furrow irrigation, he said. While others preach the merits of drip irrigation, which targets a plant’s roots still more efficiently, he said it’s too expensive and would clog, given the dirt in his district’s water supply.
The San Carlos district is getting $5 million in state assistance to drill several wells, but was just starting to drill the first, near Casa Grande, in December. General Manager Shane Lindstrom said the district’s big push is for water savings by lining its dirt canal system with concrete.
In the past, the district’s delivery system, which serves both its farmers and the Gila River Indian Community, allowed about half the water that flowed from San Carlos Reservoir to seep away. Some of the water courses through the Gila River’s channel, which can’t be lined. But lining the rest could cut water losses to 25%, Lindstrom said.
So far, the district has lined 15 miles, leaving 25 miles of the main canal and 150 miles of lateral ditches to complete. The district is seeking more money, including from the new federal infrastructure funding law, to finish the job in the coming years. In December, a crew was grading and pouring concrete in a stretch of canal where it passes the barbed-wire fences of a state prison in Florence.
“This is where we think we can have the biggest bang for the buck,” Lindstrom said. “We’re trying to modernize an 1880 canal and bring it up to the 21st century.”
Low water:Declining Colorado River flow could halt power production at Glen Canyon
Partially filling that canal and others in Pinal County with groundwater from new wells will only exacerbate another problem in the county. Pinal’s Phoenix suburbs have grown rapidly, and that development’s reliance on groundwater has bumped up against a 1980 state law that requires new housing in several metropolitan areas to prove they have 100 years of assured water supplies.
The state Department of Water Resources already has declared that the county’s planned development falls far short of that requirement, and that it must find new supplies beyond wells if it is to keep growing.
“The current water use is not sustainable,” said Jim Holway, director of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy’s Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
It’s ironic that the region is reverting to groundwater when the Central Arizona Project’s delivery of Colorado River water was in part intended to wean area farms from mining unsustainable groundwater, he said. Given that the new wells are intended to soften the blow and give farmers time to adjust, he said, “I sort of accept that in the short-term that’s what we’re doing.”
Long-term, he said, “the first step is to kind of get real.” That could mean the county will prioritize water for the most productive lands, he said, while adopting a vision that diversifies the economy, such as by shifting some farmland into solar power production. That's a concept Hiscox has heard elsewhere but rejects, preferring to save productive farmland and push solar elsewhere.
Pinal County’s groundwater deficit is challenging, said Buschatzke, the state water resources director, but assuring farmers’ access to that source was part of the bargain when lawmakers sought to protect the aquifer. It means housing developers will need to work even harder to find other sources.
“We recognize the issue there,” Buschatzke said, “but we also are committed under the 1980 groundwater law to make sure (farmers) maintain their right to pump their groundwater.”
McGuire, of the Farm Bureau, said there’s not enough farming left today to cause the sort of groundwater losses that alarmed state officials in the 1970s and led to the groundwater protection law. “It’s not the best solution,” she said of new groundwater pumping, “and I don’t think anyone out there says it is. But it’s also not the nail in the coffin.”
For its part, the Central Arizona Project is funding irrigation efficiency tests to demonstrate how farmers could get by on less water. In the fall, CAP officials welcomed water officials from other districts and states to view a new, Israeli-designed drip irrigation system that farmer Bill Perry Jr. was testing for them on his cotton in the Harquahala Valley west of Phoenix.
The system is by N-Drip, a company that has established a foothold in Phoenix in hopes of providing a cheaper alternative to conventional drip systems that cost farmers millions to install. The new system sends water through plastic lines by gravity rather than by pumping, and uses a coiled regulator intended to quickly spit out any dirt grains and avoid the clogs that sometimes plague other drip systems that have corners where sediment can get trapped. It is pitched as saving half the water that a farmer otherwise might use to flood furrows.
Perry, whose father Bill Perry Sr. previously served on the CAP board, agreed to offer ground they lease for the experiment, but didn’t expect to actually save 50%. That’s because his farm already uses sumps to capture and reuse water that flows past where it’s needed. Such savings could be possible on less efficient farms.
The resulting crop promised higher yields than a flood-irrigated field, Perry said. “The system does work. I’ll say that.”
The Perrys remained uncertain that N-Drip would become their best option, though, because it’s a system that’s laid atop the ground and then removed before harvest machinery rolls across the field. A conventional drip system, though more expensive, is buried and can be used for years.
That’s what they installed several years ago on the 2,700 acres they own, and it’s what they intend to rely on this year when their own loss of Colorado River water causes them to pull back from other farms they have previously leased and planted. Like their Pinal peers, these Maricopa County farmers will fallow land.
“There’s not much to do but cut acres,” Bill Perry Sr. said.
Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.