Photo by Jim Headley

In Arizona’s newly passed Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), farmers in Pinal County stand to lose two-thirds of the irrigation water they have been receiving from the Colorado River.

Brian Betcher, Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District

The DCP is an effort to keep the Colorado River’s major reservoirs from reaching catastrophically low levels. DCP goes into effect when levels in Lake Mead hit a specified low level of 1090 MSL (mean sea level). Lake Mead is currently at 1085 MSL, meaning water experts believe Arizona will likely lose quite a bit of their Colorado River allocations in 2020.

Brian Betcher, general manager of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, testified twice before state legislative committees as they were forging and approving the DCP.

“Happy is not a great word,” Betcher said. “(I am) satisfied that they preserved what was agreed to in the steering committee.”

Betcher said the agriculture industry in Arizona was able to get the minimum amount of water necessary to keep ag alive in the agreement.

“It is the best that we could probably do in this environment. It is important to the state that the DCP gets done. We (ag) are the lowest priority water user group. There stands to be a huge potential for economic loss in the ag community in Pinal County,” Betcher said.

Without DCP in place, Arizona would still lose a total of 320,000-acre feet of water from the Colorado River. When the DCP is fully triggered, in the event Lake Mead gets below 1075 MSL (mean sea level), an extra 192,000-acre feet will be held back. This means Arizona effectively loses 512,000-acre feet of water from the Colorado River if the drought continues.

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Last year, Lake Mead hit 1076.54 MSL and, with the worst drought in a millennium continuing into its 21st year, hydrologists are not optimistic about Arizona’s ability to avoid the full implementation of DCP.

“In the current system, without a shortage, the first 300,000-acre foot of water that’s not going to long-term users is dedicated to CAP (Central Arizona Project) agriculture, of which Pinal County has the biggest percentage of that whole pool,” Betcher said.

If there is a water shortage in 2020, with the 512,000-acre foot reduction in effect, “that would wipe out all of the 300,000 acre-feet” in Pinal County’s CAP system.

“Without the DCP plan in effect, we would still have some water left but the lake (Mead) would be worse off,” Betcher said.

In a hypothetical irrigation water loss study, the University of Arizona found the effects on Pinal County and its economy could be enormous.

If there were a loss of 300,000-acre feet of water, the study estimated:

  • $63.5 million to $66.7 million loss in gross farm-gate sales (this accounts for 7 percent)
  • $94 million to $104 million loss in total county sales (farm and non-farm sales)
  • $31.7 million to $35 million loss in county value added (this includes net farm income, profits in other industries, employee compensation and tax revenues)
  • 240 to 480 loss in full-time and part-time jobs

If there are the expected DCP water shortages in 2020, there will be 105,000 acre-feet left that can go to CAP agriculture, according to Betcher. That amount will be focused primarily on Pinal County.

“But that is a reduction from 300,000-acre feet,” he said.

Currently, producers in the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District receive 82,000 acre-feet annually and that would be reduced to about 35,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River under DCP.

The loss of water from the Colorado leaves ag producers with only one answer, bolstering lowered river irrigation feeds with groundwater pumped from the aquifer.

Pumping groundwater is expensive and laborious, and everyone is trying to use less, not more, groundwater.

“We have been preparing for drought for a long time. We have access to a lot of old wells that have been drilled in the area for agriculture and we can bring them back online. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy,” Betcher said. “It’s not going to make up for the total loss. We will try to make up with as much as we can.”

He said they have told their district members that 30 to 40 percent of lands in the area could go fallow and not be farmed.

“We have been preparing for drought for a long time. We have access to a lot of old wells that have been drilled in the area for agriculture and we can bring them back online. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy.”

The Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District in the Eloy area said it could be worse for them, according to Betcher. He said it might be 40 to 50 percent of fields going fallow in the Eloy area.

“Now, we both use ‘might’ because we have never been faced with this since we’ve had CAP water,” Betcher said. “You’re trying to project what the loss of farmlands is going to be. A farmer is not going to plant a crop if he is not sure he has enough water to see it to harvest.”

Betcher said Colorado River water cutbacks to 105,000-acre feet in the CAP system will take Pinal County agriculture “right to the edge of sustainability.”

He added that these cuts, “for some may be too much. Farmers have been a resilient lot for a long, long time. We’ve been living in a world of conservation since 1980, when the ground water act was passed.”

Betcher said farmers of the area and the irrigation districts have masterfully achieved fantastic conservation rates since the 1980s.

In the 1980s, experts noticed that groundwater levels were falling. Arizona began a deliberate plan to use more surface water and not pump as much groundwater, Betcher said.

“They (ag producers) had every right to do their pumping. We have put water back, so we have a supply that we can use during a shortage. But these guys don’t want to pump any more than they have to. We sure hope we don’t have to do it very long.”

“There is some good news here because of what the state has done. Arizona has been a leader in the country in terms of their prior planning. They made a decision years ago that they were going to take as much water off the river as they possibly could. Partly because they were protecting their allocation against California and claiming they don’t need all the water they were given. We have been storing it underground,” he said.

Betcher said the cities have built underground storage facilities by running water into an underground basin and letting it percolate down into the groundwater. The plan is to use this water in times like the current drought.

This practice helps groundwater levels from naturally falling if left untouched and even helps raise groundwater levels because CAP water has been delivered in this area for years, groundwater pumping was reduced dramatically.

“The groundwater levels have actually come back up,” Betcher said. “We now have a lot more water in storage below ground then we had before CAP got here. We had depleted the groundwater. They (ag producers) had every right to do their pumping. We have put water back, so we have a supply that we can use during a shortage. But these guys don’t want to pump any more than they have to. We sure hope we don’t have to do it very long.”

Betcher said if this is a “mega-drought” Arizona could have another 10-15 years of these arid conditions, maybe even more years than 15. He said everyone has been careful with water since the early 2000s but it was clear that Arizona was in a serious drought by 2007.

“In 2007, the idea that we wouldn’t have enough water to get to 2030, still wasn’t on the radar screen,” Betcher said. “Then we’ve had some of the worst hydrology. We’ve had a couple of the worst years on record. There will be water if you can pay for it. Sometimes if you have 5 percent of a real expensive supply, maybe you can blend that into your rates and it becomes affordable.”

Betcher said the seriousness of water in Arizona is not overblown. He said if there is a “level one” shortage, there will not be a loss of water to the higher-priority users like cities.

“They won’t lose a drop of water. Their cost will go up because there will be fewer units delivered to CAP to recover their costs but there is no loss of water supplies. I spend 1 to 2 percent of my personal budget on my water. A farmer is at 25 to 30 percent of his budget in water costs,” Betcher said.

He said water users near the rivers do not have restrictions under the DCP because they are higher-priority users. The crisis only impacts the ag water users in the interior of the state.

“One man’s crisis is another man’s concern,” said Betcher. “The concern with the cities is once you get to a shortage, will it continue to accelerate and get worse? Then they will get hit with loss of water. They are trying to do everything they can to protect themselves. It would be bad for the state if that happens.”

He said Pinal County is a great place to grow crops, if you have the water to do it. On average, Pinal County farmers can get three crops harvested in a year, while most farmers in the nation only get one.

He said with water cuts that are expected to hit agriculture, farmers stand to lose income.

“If they stay in business, they’re still going to buy less. Whatever entities gain their economic survival from agriculture, those will end up shrinking,” he said.

An additional problem for farmers, who let fields go fallow, is dust maintenance. Growers are required to take care of their fields by law even if they’re not growing a crop, spending money to control dust while not getting any income from the fields means added expense for farmers.

“If you get the big dust storm coming through, you’re going to have more land exposed to that because it’s not going to have crops on it,” Betcher said.

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