PHOENIX – Farmers in Pinal County are again pushing for an extra $20 million in the state budget for wells and other groundwater infrastructure. This would be in addition to the $9 million in general fund dollars and $5 million from Central Arizona Project taxpayers they received as part of the Drought Contingency Plan earlier this year.
Climate change and overuse have sapped the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs. That spurred water leaders from the seven Colorado River basin states to negotiate a plan for cutbacks in order to reduce the risk of dangerously low levels. That deal, the DCP, was finalized earlier this year and signed into law by President Trump in April.
Irrigation districts in Pinal County are facing the brunt of water reductions due to their place near the back of the line for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project canal system. The districts exchanged higher priority water rights for debt relief and cheaper water prices as part of a deal from the early 2000s.
The DCP plans for a faster transition to groundwater for Pinal farming, moving irrigation districts to almost complete reliance on groundwater by 2025 or 2026, depending on river conditions. Farmers would also fallow 30 to 40 percent of their farmland. A healthy snowpack in 2019 may have put off significant CAP cutbacks for next year, but they are expected in future years.
The current budget request is due to uncertainty over U.S. Department of Agriculture funding. Federal programs may provide the $20 million, but the Pinal farmers want the state to allocate the money now and get federal reimbursement later. They argue the infrastructure work needs to begin soon, long before any USDA program makes its decision.
“If we don’t have the money now, money from the feds later would be a day late and a dollar short,” said Tiffany Shedd, a farmer and lawyer from Eloy.
Shedd and others argue farming is vital to the larger economy. Environmental groups say tax dollars shouldn’t facilitate groundwater pumping, and Arizona should move away from water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton.
Rep. David Cook (R-District 8), whose district includes much of Pinal County, said he had the support of budget negotiators.
“I have faith in the Governor’s Office and the leadership in the House and Senate to put together a budget that includes this money,” he said. Cook did not say he would withhold his vote from the budget if the money isn’t included, a strategy other state lawmakers have employed this year. Republicans hold slim majorities in both the House and Senate.
“I don’t withhold my vote, I never have,” said Rep. T.J. Shope (R-District 8), Cook’s seatmate and a member of House leadership. “I believe that the leadership that I’m a part of, obviously, in the House, is also supportive of it.”
CAMP VERDE – Zach Hauser, like many farmers in the Verde Valley, takes pride in his land and the crops he grows.
Normally this time of year, rows of corn, alfalfa, carrots and watermelon would cover his acreage. But today, two sections of his property look like a farmer’s worst nightmare: fallow land strewn with dead vegetation and weeds.
That’s by design.
Hauser swapped out some of his usual thirsty crops – which require flood irrigation from the Verde River during scorching summers – for barley, which uses less water.
“Normally on that ground, we’d be planting corn,” Hauser said. “We wouldn’t be planting until the first of May, and we’d use water all summer. With the barley, we’re planting it in late January, early February, and we’re done watering it by the end of May.”
Hauser made the change as part of a collaboration among local farmers, investors and the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. The group worked with Hauser and Hauser Farms and nearby Speck Farms to swap 144 acres of summer corn for winter barley, and they’re now seeing the fruits of that labor.
Sinagua Malt – a malt house built specifically to encourage Verde Valley farmers to plant barley – turns that grain into a key ingredient of craft beer, which it sells to stores and restaurants around the state, including O.H.S.O., the Wren House and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in metro Phoenix. A malt house takes the unprocessed grain and turns it into malt, which is then used to make beer.
“Just knowing that something is grown locally – that it basically goes from farm to plate for food, or that it goes from farm to mug for beer – really makes a difference to consumers,” said Chip Norton, president and principal shareholder of Arizona’s first malt house.
Making of malt
Local farmers rely on the Verde, which the nonprofit American Rivers listed as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in America in 2006, according to National Geographic. The Nature Conservancy considers it still at risk.
The collaboration saved 47 million gallons of river water last June, said Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River program director for the Nature Conservancy in Arizona. June is when the river is at its lowest and saving water matters most.
It wasn’t as easy as simply asking the farmers to swap crops; after all, barley usually doesn’t make as much money as corn. To make the effort viable financially, they built Sinagua Malt.
Sinagua – Spanish for “without water” – is a public benefit company, which means it puts more value on public good than profit.
“The big number to us is the amount of water that’s staying in the (Verde River) in the summer months,” Norton said.
He started Sinagua Malt with the Nature Conservancy in 2016 after he did a similar enterprise with Many Rivers Brewing Co. in Colorado.
Norton said efforts to help protect the environment make a difference with consumers.
For example, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert, which Norton said is Sinagua Malt’s biggest customer, markets its products with an emphasis on “naturalism and conservation” on its website’s homepage.
Verde River plays key role
Arizona has been in a drought for 21 years, said Nancy Selover, the Arizona state climatologist. Because of climate change and increasing population across the Southwest, the Colorado River – which supplies water to 40 million Americans – dries up before reaching the Sea of Cortez.
The partners in this project want to protect the Verde River, which begins near Paulden, Arizona, from the same fate. The Salt and Verde rivers are primary water sources for metro Phoenix. To compensate for dwindling surface water, cities pump groundwater or draw from the Central Arizona Project, which also supplies Colorado River water to Tucson.
Hauser sees multiple benefits
Hauser joined the Nature Conservancy project not only to make money and save water, but also to help protect his land from development. His family has been farming in Camp Verde since the late 1960s and now owns the land, much of which it had leased until the late 2000s.
“I always thought that it was ours when I was a little kid,” Hauser said. “You don’t understand what a lease means or owning means, so I always … felt like we owned it. And after I got older – and there was threat of development to the ground – that we eventually bought it.”
In the mid-2000s, developers were buying Camp Verde property for housing developments, and the Hausers feared they’d lose the large parcels they were leasing, Hauser said. The Nature Conservancy intervened, helping the Hausers buy those parcels and place easements on the property.
Those easements make it illegal to develop the land, whether by his family or any future owners, Hauser said.
“We weren’t worried about my grandfather or my father or myself wanting to sell it to develop it,” he said, “but you can’t see into the future, and you don’t know how your kids or grandkids or great-great-great grandkids are going to turn out. Hopefully, they wouldn’t want to sell it to a developer, but now it is impossible.”
The business of barley
This first year, Hauser’s farm and Speck Farm didn’t see the returns they would have had if they’d grown corn, but the Nature Conservancy paid the difference. In the future, said Schonek, the conservancy’s Verde River program director, the malt will return the same profit corn fetches.
“Without having a malt house, the only thing you can do with barley is sell it for cattle feed, which is not economically viable for farmers,” Schonek said.
The Nature Conservancy has invested nearly half a million dollars to convert acreage into barley to compensate the farms and Sinagua Malt, she said, adding, “It’s not outside the range of what we are spending on other conservation projects.”
“Achieving the public benefit is what drives (Sinagua Malt),” Schonek said, “but it’s still a corporation that has to make money and will have shareholder dividends in the future.”
All the conservancy’s dividends will go back into Sinagua Malt to achieve the organization’s five-year goal of converting 600 acres to barley, saving 200 million gallons of water each year in June.
Hauser said he’d be happy to convert more acreage if the malt house expands.
“We’ll probably be converting more of our ground to drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation,” Hauser said, “which will save more water than we’re already saving now. So, we’re just trying to lead the front now and save as much water as possible, but still make an honest living.”
Sinagua malt barley can cost 20 percent more than competitors’ products, but the sustainability angle seems to have struck a chord with local brewers. Norton said the malt house brought in about $50,000 in its first year, all of which will go to expand it.
– Video by Jordan Evans