Why One Arizona County Could Upend the Southwest’s Drought Plan

New federal estimates suggest serious water shortages on the Colorado River are closer than thought. While Arizona water users try to cooperate on a conservation fix, one group of farmers stands in the way of a compromise.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A tall bleached “bathtub ring” is visible on the steep rocky banks of Lake Mead near Hoover Dam in 2015. The lake is expected to shrink further as a 19-year drought on the Colorado River continues, likely triggering severe water cutbacks for all the states that depend on the river.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Serious water shortages on the Colorado River could be less than two years away, according to new federal estimates. Yet after 19 years of drought, just 500 farmers in one Arizona county may decide the fate of the entire Southwest: By holding tight to their own temporary water supply, they could stall a conservation plan designed to save the entire region from water shortages.

Pinal County, sandwiched between Phoenix and Tucson, is the third-largest farming county in Arizona and 54th in the nation, generating about $1 billion in annual sales, according to United States Department of Agriculture statistics. Beef cattle and milk generate more than half of that income, with cotton and alfalfa the next largest commodities.

Only about 540 farms in Pinal County depend on irrigation, according to the USDA. Those farmers can thank imported Colorado River water and the federal government for their success. Their irrigation water comes from the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal completed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1993, which diverts a portion of the river’s flow deep into the Sonoran Desert.

Under a proposed drought contingency plan (DCP) aimed at saving Arizona residents from severe water shortages, Pinal County farmers could lose access to all their Colorado River water. If that happens, more than a third of the county’s 1.2 million acres of farmland could be put out of production, said Pinal County farmer Dan Thelander.

He said they will fight to prevent that.

“That’s a pill we’re not going to swallow,” said Thelander, a board member of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, one of the largest in Pinal County. “It would be a huge economic hardship if the county lost that much water.”

In reality, Pinal County farmers will lose that water anyway in just 12 years.

Under a 2004 settlement agreement, irrigation districts in the county agreed to give up permanent contracts for Colorado River water in return for temporary access at a steep discount. They pay only the energy cost of delivering the water, and none of the operations and maintenance costs for the Central Arizona Project, nor the capital cost and debt obligation to build it.

The discount has saved them more than $300 million so far. It has been paid for, in part, by a parcel tax levied by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the entity that maintains the canal system. Every property owner in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties pays a property tax of 10 cents per $100 of assessed value to support maintenance and operation of the water system.

The Central Arizona Project canal, shown here, winds 336 miles from the Colorado River southeast into the Sonoran Desert. It has become a lifeline for agriculture in Pinal County, even though farmers there no longer have contracts to access the water. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

In return for the subsidy, Pinal farmers agreed their access to Colorado River water would be “subject to availability” rather than guaranteed by contract. In addition, terms of the deal have already reduced the maximum available to them from 400,000 acre-feet annually in 2004 to 300,000 acre-feet in 2017. Another cut to 225,000 acre-feet is planned in 2024.

And in the most crucial clause, the settlement states there will be no water available to them after 2030, effectively making Pinal County irrigation districts Arizona’s most “junior” users of Colorado River water.

As a result of worsening water scarcity on the river, that day of reckoning could come a lot sooner. Because they have no contractual right to the water, it could be taken away within a year or two as part of a pending drought contingency plan.

The question at hand is whether Pinal County farmers should be compensated for losing Colorado River water earlier than expected. That could take the form of a water transfer from other Colorado River water users, if any are willing.

“Our concern about DCP is, you’re talking about a program that would eliminate all the water available to us well before the 2030 date we had bargained for,” said Paul Orme, a Phoenix attorney who represents four Pinal County irrigation districts. “Somebody needs to mitigate that additional loss for us to be supportive of DCP.

Lake Mead is the barometer for water trouble on the Colorado River. Under agreements reached in 2007, California, Nevada and Arizona agreed to mandatory cutbacks in water diversions if the lake level falls to an elevation of 1,075ft, known as a “Tier 1” shortage trigger.

Arizona will be most affected by the cutbacks because it holds relatively low priority water rights. It also relies on the river more heavily than the other states. It would lose 320,000 acre-feet of water under a Tier 1 shortage, or about 12 percent of its Colorado River supply.

A new analysis by the Bureau of Reclamation, based on drier and more recent hydrology, makes a Tier 1 shortage trigger virtually certain in 2020, adding urgency to complete a drought contingency plan soon. And it warns that more severe triggers will come much sooner than expected. Under this so-called “stress test” analysis, Reclamation found that the 1,050-ft shortage trigger (Tier 2) could be reached in 2021, followed by the 1,025-ft trigger (Tier 3) as soon as 2023.

Each step brings even deeper mandatory cuts in Colorado River water deliveries.

A drought contingency plan is seen as crucial to avoiding these severe cuts. Under such a plan, all Arizona water users would volunteer to reduce reliance on the river, and leave the saved water in Lake Mead to minimize further drops in elevation.

“The hydrology is grim,” said Kevin Moran, senior director of the Colorado River Program at Environmental Defense Fund. “The risks are mounting to communities, agriculture, recreation and the environment. And it’s really incumbent on all water users to work out a drought contingency plan.”

The other states that rely on the river have essentially already adopted their own drought contingency plans. They’re now waiting on Arizona to do the same.

If Arizona water users can’t agree on their own plan, the secretary of Interior would be required under the 2007 agreement to reduce water deliveries to all the states once Lake Mead hits the 1,075-ft Tier 1 trigger level. A DCP is intended to forestall these harsh cuts with voluntary water conservation measures, which would be easier to live with and designed to keep Mead above that 1,075-ft trigger.

After a number of fits and starts in recent years, Arizona is forming a new stakeholder group to get back to work on a drought contingency plan. If successful, it must then be approved by the state Legislature.

Pinal County farmers are already pressuring key lawmakers to vote against a DCP if it doesn’t protect their access to water. And Thelander said farmers have important allies there.

Farmworkers weed a field near Coolidge, Arizona, in Pinal County. Irrigation districts in the county have the lowest priority rights to water from the Colorado River and are set to lose that water supply permanently in 2030. They could lose it much sooner under terms of a drought contingency plan now being negotiated for the state. (Photo Courtesy Coolidge Unified School District)

“We’ll be fighting tooth and nail at the Legislature to keep them from enacting something where we become the sacrificial lamb,” he said. “I have confidence those folks would not do that to us.”

Lots of other water users don’t think Pinal County should get special treatment. This, they assert, would be unfair to others who depend on the river.

“What I am arguing is, they already were compensated handsomely for absorbing the risk of being juniors,” said John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. “They got staggeringly cheap water for decades. Now we’re reaching a situation where it’s not available and they’re saying they should be compensated again.”

Pinal County farmers can pump groundwater as an alternative to Colorado River water. They are already using groundwater to supplement surface water deliveries, but it is not considered feasible as a full replacement.

One reason is that irrigation districts in the county lack the infrastructure – canals and pumps – to distribute groundwater everywhere they need it.

Another is that there simply isn’t enough groundwater. It might sustain farms for a few years, then they’ll face a shortage again.

Finally, the groundwater is not theirs alone to use. Phoenix and Tucson have been banking groundwater in the region for years as a hedge against drought. When Colorado River cutbacks come, the cities will want to start using that groundwater.

Technically, Pinal County is considered part of the Phoenix metro area. That seemed absurd for such a farm-centric county – until the new century dawned.

In the 1990 Census – around the time Pinal County farmers began drawing water from the Central Arizona Project – the county’s population was 116,000. In 2010, just two decades later, the population had more than tripled to 376,000. That’s because Pinal County is becoming a bedroom community for Phoenix and Tucson workers seeking more affordable housing.

Groundwater serves most of that residential growth.

“Groundwater is a finite resource,” said Kathleen Ferris, former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and now a senior fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “The more you continue to use groundwater for farms, the less likely it is that you can support future subdivisions.”

Moran, at Environmental Defense Fund, believes a mitigation plan should be developed for Pinal County farmers so a drought contingency plan is possible. This could include other parties agreeing to give up water so farming remains feasible in the county through 2030, or some kind of financial subsidy, perhaps to encourage land fallowing.

Both options seem unlikely at this stage. As risk of a mandatory shortage builds on the river, other Central Arizona Project users are clinging tightly to their own water supplies. And many are skeptical about another subsidy for Pinal County agriculture.

“You can’t continue farming on an unsustainable resource,” Ferris said. “At some point, theyre going to have to get realistic about what it is they can and cannot do.

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