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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.

Also in the series Drought & Development
Councilman gives Arizona 30 years left to survive
GWR touts strong water future for Maricopa
O’Halleran: Drought means no shortage of water issues

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.

U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran
U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran

By Congressman Tom O’Halleran

There is nothing more important to the future of our state and the entire southwest region of our country than our access to water. I have spent most of my time in public service, as a state legislator, concerned citizen and community leader, and now in the United States House of Representatives, working extensively on Arizona water issues. I understand just how important this resource is to Arizona.

For years, Arizona has worked to implement a drought plan that ensures our state continues to have access to water from the Colorado River and other in-state water sources, while protecting the health of our waterways and national parks and forests. The outcomes of this work must honor our settlement agreements with Native American tribes and nations and ensure the rights of private property owners are protected. The decades-long drought Arizona is facing and the realities of climate change have jeopardized the long-term accessibility of our water and increased the fervency of getting a plan in place.

Also in the series Drought & Development
Councilman gives Arizona 30 years left to survive
GWR touts strong water future for Maricopa
Contingency plan bites into Pinal County agriculture

During my time in the Arizona Legislature, I spent years working with Republicans and Democrats alike to create Arizona’s first-ever conservation, drought and statewide water management plans. I led these efforts, and my legislation to develop and implement these critical plans was passed with broad, bipartisan support.

Today, the recent passage of the Drought Contingency Plan expands on my work. The interstate plan is an important step, and I am pleased with the outcome. My staff and I have worked closely with tribal, local, state, and federal stakeholders throughout the entire process, and we must continue to work together to ensure this plan works for everyone in the state.

Now, as a member of the House of Representatives, I have continued to make protecting our state’s water resources a priority. Two different efforts to jeopardize our watersheds in Northern Arizona were turned back in the last two years.

The first, a $23 million cut to the Upper Colorado River Basin Fund, would have impacted management programs and research that protects the long-term health of the Grand Canyon watershed and management of water supplies on the Colorado River. The second attack on our water came with the threat that the Administration would lift a ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon watershed. Uranium mining in the region would have a disastrous impact on our natural resources in an area that is still coping with the toxic legacy of abandoned uranium mines from World War II. I worked alongside then-Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva to prevent this ban from being lifted.

In addition to water conservation and sustainability across the state, there are communities in the most rural parts of the First Congressional District who are facing a completely different water issue. Rural and tribal communities often lack water infrastructure, leaving families without safe, clean drinking water. We were successful in passing legislation in the past year to allow the White Mountain Apache Tribe to use available funds to build a water delivery system that provides communities throughout the region with clean water. There are still communities that are facing this problem, and I will continue working to fund these critical infrastructure projects.

There will not be a shortage of water issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years, but it is imperative that we start those discussions sooner than later. Our children and grandchildren are relying on us to take action to ensure our state remains competitive and our economy thrives. We have a great deal of work ahead of us, but I am confident that we can work together to serve the needs of our communities today, and into the future.

Tom O’Halleran is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Arizona’s District 1. A Democrat, he lives in the Village of Oak Creek.

This column appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.

Global Water has its own wells and is confident in Maricopa's sustainability. Photo by Jim Headley

Maricopa’s future looks solid because of water.

Jake Lenderking

“Global Water has a really great supply,” said Jake Lenderking, Global Water Resources’ director of Water Resources. “They have a designation of an assured supply for our service area and for growth in our service area.”

Lenderking said the company has solid groundwater and recycled water storage. Because Maricopa is a relatively new city, Global has been able to design a unique and efficient water delivery and sewer system.

The model is called Total Water Management.

“They were able to build this in from day one in new developments. It is essentially the reuse,” he said. “We look at water as in integrated resource. We’re not just saying that we’re a water utility. We are a water utility, we are a wastewater utility and we’re a recycled water utility.”

Also in the series Drought & Development
Councilman gives Arizona 30 years left to survive
O’Halleran: Drought means no shortage of water issues
Contingency plan bites into Pinal County agriculture

Lenderking said an old water utility may serve a half-acre foot of per connection. With Total Water Management, Global was able to go into Maricopa with new plumbing codes that allows for 1.6 gallon per flush toilets and other water saving measures.

“All of this is pretty much throughout Maricopa,” Lenderking said. “So, we won’t be at 0.5; we will be at less. We also use recycled water everywhere we can. It actually reduces our reliance on our source water.”

“The sustainable path is ground water and recycled water for quite a long time,” he said.

Lenderking said in Arizona there is a program called the Assured Water Supply Program and the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“We have the right to pump the groundwater beneath us. To say that it is there for 100 years, we had to actually prove through groundwater modeling that it exists. That water is there.”

“As a landowner or certain water utilities, like us,” Lenderking said, “you have to prove to the Department of Water Resources that you have a 100-year assured supply. When you prove that, you get a certificate or like here in Maricopa we went and got a designation under the utilities and the landowner doesn’t have to prove it. We have it for our whole service area that we have 100 years of assured supply.”

He said this means Global Water can serve an adequate amount of water to Maricopa, year after year for 100 years.

The Department of Water Resources has tested Global Water’s physical ability to deliver water, legal ability, continuous water supply availability, water quality, consistency, their management plan and financial capabilities.

“We have the right to pump the groundwater beneath us. To say that it is there for 100 years, we had to actually prove through groundwater modeling that it exists. That water is there,” he said.

Lenderking said even though the state looks at a 100-year supply, the system works like a permit and companies like Global Water has to re-prove their models to the state.

He said they have proved up 22,914-acre feet of water and “we use a little less that 7,000-acre feet per year here in Maricopa. We have over three times what we use today to grow on and then than number, 22,914 to use year after year for 100 years. We have a very good and sustainable water supply,” said Lenderking.

He said there are a series of water basins in the area. Maricopa sits over the Maricopa/Stanfield Sub-Basin. Next door to the east is the Eloy Sub-Basin near Eloy, Casa Grande and Florence. Often the two sub-basins are paired because they are hydrologically connected.

“Our (sub-basin) is huge and vast. There are millions and millions of acre feet of water in storage,” Lenderking said.

He said the natural and artificial recharge of the two sub-basins does not stack up to the amount of water being taken out of the aquifers annually.

“We have agricultural, dairies, municipal use and some industrial use all having straws in that aquifer,” Lenderking said.

With a 512,000-acre foot reduction possible in Arizona under the DCP, municipal supplies like Global Water won’t be seriously impacted. Most cuts will come to the Ag industry when DCP is implemented.

“There are people who worked on DCP every day for the past couple of years,” Lenderking said. “There’s that many details. Right now, the irrigation districts do pump quite a bit of groundwater. That’s going to increase because of surface water reduction. How much of that makes sense for them? It’s up to them and they’re working with that. They are grappling with what is the right number.”

Lenderking said adding groundwater to the irrigation system costs more money, so it has an upfront cost to the irrigation district.

“Then you have a what do you want to do situation. Do you want to pump all the water out of the aquifer in 60 years or do you want to save some for 200 years?” Lenderking said.

He said he is concerned about how much water will be pumped out of the aquifer looking at a long term usage but he said he has no concern about what their pumping right now.

“We’re actually in a really nice place here in Maricopa, geographically on the aquifer. With the Gila Indian River community to the north and virtually no ground water uses and the Ak-Chin Indian Community around us and to the south.”

He said the two Native American communities will still be importing Colorado River surface water and not pumping groundwater, protecting the aquifer.

“Between the two, we don’t have a lot of groundwater mining right here,” Lenderking said.

He said much more groundwater is being mined south of the Ak-Chin Community by ag producers.

“We should try to get our ducks in a row. We know we have water here, but people have been fighting about it. It has created some negative economic development issues.”

Lenderking said Maricopa will be able to handle quite a bit of growth based on the water supply.

“There will be long-term water planning projects that will continue to augment water supplies,” he said. “There are provisions for that written into laws and treaties with Mexico.”

Population estimates projecting the growth of Maricopa range from 161,000 to 300,000 by the year 2050.

“We are using about a third of what our designated supply has in it. We’re 51,000 now in Maricopa. It almost pairs perfectly with the population growing by three times and three times the water use. That is a good fit. We will be renewing that designation, assured supply and adding to it as needed,” Lenderking said.

Water is an important issue in Arizona.

“I think there is an article in a national paper every other week. There’s an article in our papers at least every week. In Arizona probably, everyday there’s an article about drought or shortage. I think it has a pretty negative impact. We should try to get our ducks in a row. We know we have water here, but people have been fighting about it. It has created some negative economic development issues,” Lenderking said.


Global Water CEO Ron Fleming talks about the state's Drought Contingency Plan at a MEDA meeting. Photo by Jim Headley

“It’s a little complicated. It’s a little chaotic right now, but it’s not a crisis.”

Watch for InMaricopa’s series on the Drought Contingency Plan and Maricopa sustainability starting March 1.

Ron Fleming, Global Water Resources president and CEO, addressed the members of the Maricopa Economic Development Alliance (MEDA) about the state’s Drought Contingency Plan on Wednesday. Fleming told the MEDA membership, “It’s just complicated, and there’s a lot going on. I haven’t checked my phone in two hours – probably something has changed.”

Fleming said his main message is, “sometimes a good crisis is needed to cause change.”

He said it is time to find the right balance in Pinal County to work together and address the water issues of the day.

The Colorado River provides water to approximately 40 million people in seven states and in Mexico. The water is provided to about 4 million acres of farm land.

“However, over the last 20 years of drought, it has had a significant impact on water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” Fleming said. “We are sitting here today with a historic low (water level) in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. That is projected to continue to decline.”

He said most people saw this trend coming many years ago and began planning for this event.

“That’s where the talks began that turned into the common name of DCP, Drought Contingency Planning,” he said.

Fleming explained how different tiers of water levels will affect the amount of water that is cut back to Arizona.

Beginning in 2020, the DCP engages when Lake Mead hits a level below 1,090 Mean Sea Level (MSL). At that point, called Tier 0, 192,000 acre feet that was going to Arizona is cut back. Tier 1 engages at 1,075 MSL and an additional 320,000 acre feet is cut.

The Colorado River is currently at 1,085 MSL.

If the water continues to fall in Lake Mead, virtually all water to entities besides Native American reservations would be stopped from flowing out of the Colorado. Even the reservations could lose some water flows in the event the levels dive too low.

“The Colorado River supply comes into Pinal County primarily for agricultural purposes. [It] was also planned to phase out by 2030,” Fleming said. “That is for different reasons and historic agreements. That was always the plan. What’s happening now under DCP and the drought conditions is that is accelerating. It is hitting immediately; more than 10 years earlier than they otherwise were able to hopefully adapt to that reality.”

He said DCP is intended to bring about larger cutbacks on a shorter timetable.

“So that we can protect Lake Mead and keep that reservoir from hitting those shortage declaration levels,” Fleming told the MEDA members.

He said the Tier 0 level on Lake Mead is already in effect.

“DCP is not intended to keep us from hitting Tier 1,” he said. “The belief is Tier 1 is going to be hit anyway. It’s really about keeping us from hitting Tier 2 and Tier 3, where a lot more dramatic reductions start to occur.”

Fleming said the Bureau of Reclamation believes there is a better than 50 percent chance that Lake Mead will hit the Tier 1 trigger as early as 2020.

“When we hit the Tier 1 reduction, it fully eliminates the agricultural pull that primarily comes into Pinal County,” Fleming said.

He said in addition to ag losing all its water, Tier 1 cuts will also start to eliminate some of the NIA (Non-Indian Agricultural) Priority Water.

“Basically, cities and tribes have been buying some of that NIA water. They do have a lot of capital dollars invested. They take that NIA water and put it to use. There are real immediate implications to cities and tribes, not just agriculture.”

Fleming explained that Arizona has junior rights to allocations of Colorado River water.

“If we hit those drought declaration levels, what is prescribed as reductions to Arizona is immediate and significant,” Fleming said. “We are not trying to pretend that we are in a different boat than the ag community. We are all in this boat together and we have to figure it out together. They are the first ones to take this most significant impact of what is going on.”

It will quickly become unlikely that any Colorado River water will be used for agriculture outside of the reservations.

“There is some mitigation being done in DCP for three years. They found a way to continue to supply around 100,000 acre feet per year, or about a quarter to a third of what they’re used to for the next three years,” Fleming said. “However, in 2023 to 2025 the mitigation changes. In the NIA pool will go from about 50 to 100 percent mitigation, depending on lake levels. That’s when you start seeing our cities’ NIA water get cut back more.

“Importantly, there is no more CAP (Central Arizona Project) ag mitigation. All renewable water supplies coming into central Arizona for agricultural (use) is gone.”

Instead of giving the ag industry surface water from the Colorado, the state, CAP and the federal government will create funding to help irrigators redevelop ground water pumping systems, according to Fleming.

Primarily, funds will be used to rehabilitate older ground water pumping wells and infrastructure that “they haven’t had to use because of the CAP water coming into the area.”

He said they will be rebuilding existing wells, drilling new wells and working on canals.

“That will result in about 70,000 acre feet per year of more groundwater pumping in the area to make up for the loss in the CAP supply,” said Fleming.

He said once the drought gets to 2026, “there is no more mitigation at all for any groups and, if we get to a Tier 3 shortage before 2026, all the mitigation stops.”

He added, “Increased groundwater pumping is not ideal. It’s just not – there’s just no way to get around it.”

Fleming said there will not likely be new groundwater entitlements issued anytime “in the near future.” This will curb development outside of established service areas, like the area served by Global Water Resources. Global Water has an assured 100-year water supply in their service area that allows them to pump much more water that what their system is currently using. This means growth can continue in Maricopa and the area served by Global Water.

“We think what will happen, ultimately, is the assured water supply holders will get some form of a haircut to make sure that our groundwater aquifer is not going to be over-mined and the assured water supply program can be put back into effect in some way. But that is to be determined,” Fleming said.