This question could tank months of work on Arizona’s plan to help save Lake Mead

(Photo: Arizona Farm Bureau)

Opinion: As Arizona’s supply dwindles, farmers, tribes and others are starting to feud over who deserves the water – and for how long.

How long – and how much – should other water users help sustain Pinal County agriculture?

That may be the question that makes or breaks Arizona’s participation in the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, a three-state agreement aimed to keep water levels at Lake Mead from falling dangerously low, requiring more severe cuts from every water user in this state.

We have long known that Ag Pool water – low-priority water from Lake Mead on which Pinal County farmers rely – is slated to go away in 2030.

But if DCP is approved, the Ag Pool could evaporate as soon as 2020, when the first shortage on Lake Mead could be declared. That’s a full decade before farmers were expecting.

A steering committee has been working for months to find other sources that can make up some of this lost water for a few years, in hopes of lessening the pain on Pinal County farmers.

But that process may be devolving, now that the Gila River Indian Community has balked at the proposal. And that has big implications for the state.

How big is Pinal County agriculture?

Agriculture is a major part of Arizona’s economy – like, $23.3 billion major, according to a 2017 University of Arizona economic impact study. Pinal, Maricopa and Yuma counties trade places each year for top annual sales, and Pinal County’s ag sales rank in the top 1 percent of all counties nationwide.

The cash cow (pun intended) in Pinal County is dairy ranching. The county supplies pretty much all of Phoenix and Tucson’s milk. More than 200,000 acres grow crops, and while there is a substantial cotton presence, there are more acres growing the alfalfa, corn and barley that sustains local dairies.

The county also supplies local processing plants that make everything from milk powder to yogurt to cheese, multiplying the job and economic impacts of agriculture. So, while it’s unclear how much of the $23.3 billion Pinal County generates – a UA study quantifying its impact should be finished in the next month or so – researchers believe it is sizable.

What happens if the water goes away?

The Colorado River produces less water than Arizona and other states are entitled to use. And that is a big problem for our drinking water.

Pinal County farmers argue that while they know they must scale back – and have been making plans to do so – cutting roughly half of their total water in a matter of months could have catastrophic impacts on a significant economic engine for the county and the state.

It’s been estimated that about 60 percent of the land would be fallowed in the five irrigation districts that sustain a majority of the county’s crops if Ag Pool water went away in 2020 without other surface water to bridge the gap.

That would have major impacts on farmers like Dan Thelander, who just spent more than $300,000 to install a more water-wise drip irrigation system. With that much land fallowed, there’s no way he could make the payments on those improvements.

That could mean financial ruin for a lot of farmers.

It also would have a profound impact on the dairy industry – even if few dairies use the water directly – because it so heavily relies on crops grown within a few miles of the cattle. Dairies would likely scale back production, said Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders’ Association, because it would cost more to import feed. Milk prices most certainly would increase and, over time, dairies likely would move out of state.


There would also be a significant but as-yet-unquantified environmental impact from the amount of dust produced by thousands of acres of fallowed fields. Think of how big haboobs get now, and that’s with most farmland covered with plants.

Then there’s the images of thousands of acres fallowed fields that are sure to come in the national media, accompanied by headlines that Arizona doesn’t have enough water to keep these fields in production. If you don’t think that’ll have adverse consequences for Phoenix, farmers say, think again.

Wasn’t that going to happen in 2030?

Farmers agreed to give up Ag Pool water in 2030 as part of a larger 2004 water settlement, in which they exchanged the water for federal loan forgiveness.

But Paul Orme, who represents Pinal County’s largest irrigation districts and helped negotiate the settlement, said they did so under vastly different assumptions – some of which have only recently changed.

The districts figured in 2004 that water use would be cut as homes swallowed fields. They would install the infrastructure over time to move more groundwater via the canals and supplement the lost Ag Pool water with other water from Lake Mead.

But homebuilding has stalled since the Great Recession. Acquiring other Lake Mead water suddenly isn’t much of a viable option. Not enough pumps have been installed to move groundwater – because, remember, farmers thought they had until 2030 to make these improvements – and even if they were, there are limits on how much can be pumped.

So, suddenly, farmers are facing the prospect of no Lake Mead water with little to take its place – and, oh, by the way, the cuts could come as soon as a year from now.

That, understandably, is a tough pill to swallow.

So, what’s the fight?

A proposal was on the table to allocate 105,000 acre-feet of water – about 40 percent of what Pinal County farmers receive now – for three years, decreasing to 70,000 acre-feet in the final four years of DCP.

Farmers said the proposal was painful – it would still fallow 42 percent of lands initially in the county’s largest irrigation districts – but they would agree to it because it would buy them some time to regroup before 2030.

But the Gila River Indian Community has since rejected it, saying among other things that it would give farmers more water than they would receive in a shortage under the current guidelines, without offering the same concessions for higher-priority Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) Pool users that also would be cut during shortages under DCP. 

The tribe says it has an alternate proposal, though its terms remain a closely guarded secret.

Where do we go from here?

That has thrown a monkey wrench into what until now had been a public – and generally amicable – planning process. Steering committee meetings have been canceled as members meet in private to work out “major areas of conceptual disagreement,” as an announcement on the DCP website called it.

Fear and uncertainty abounds.

And – here’s the worse part – we’re running out of time. We only have a few weeks left until DCP must go to the Legislature, and if key members of the committee are still fighting over how its cuts will play out within Arizona, the chances of it passing decrease markedly.

We cannot let that happen.

Yes, there are valid concerns about how much NIA water would be cut in this deal. And even if we can somehow agree on how much water Pinal County farmers should get and for how long, that only gets us to 2026.

Some argue that we should just pull off the Band-Aid on agriculture now, let farmers endure the pain of major water cuts and funnel that water to higher-priority users, like cities and tribes.

But that fundamentally misunderstands the role – and benefit – of agriculture in this state.

Bailing out farmers now doesn’t absolve them of hard choices – on everything from the crops they plant to whether they should even continue to work the land – once the bail out ends.

But it buys time to make those choices with less financial ruin, given the new reality they’ve been dealt.

A $23.3 billion industry deserves as much.


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