Central Arizona farmers face tough choices planning for water cuts

Kelly Anderson is a third generation farmer in Pinal County and board member of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

PHOENIX – Farmers between Phoenix and Tucson, in Pinal County, are in a tough spot as Arizona continues critical negotiations over expected cuts in Colorado River water allocations.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the Colorado River system, is likely to be “in shortage” in 2020. A shortage declaration from the Bureau of Reclamation would trigger mandatory cutbacks for some large water users in Arizona.

But the risk goes deeper than that. Reclamation projections say Mead is uncomfortably close to even lower levels – to the point where no water can be released, a situation known as “dead pool.” In an effort to keep the system relatively healthy, the seven states in the Lower and Upper basins of the Colorado River are finalizing a plan to prop up Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country. On top of that, Arizona is working on an internal deal to figure out precisely who gets a water cut, and how.

Serious questions

At a recent public meeting of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, a group of eighth-graders attended as part of their own study of water. One of their questions was, “Should some stakeholders or cities get their water shut off, or should everybody be put on a water limit?”

In response, Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, said planners “know what the answer is” to the question of who gets cut first.

“But sometimes we don’t like what the answer is,” he continued. “That’s why we’re all meeting here, is to see if there’s a way to agree to still – respecting how the priorities work – make agreements among ourselves that the outcome might be different than just kind of the default outcome of what the priorities dictate.”

The default outcome is tolerable for some groups and intolerable for others.

Shane Leonard, general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District in Maricopa County, is a member of the state’s Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

Pinal County reality

In the “intolerable” column is Kelly Anderson of Pinal County. A third-generation farmer, he grew up in a house on property he now owns on the outskirts of Maricopa, south of Phoenix. He grows decorative wheat millet for Hobby Lobby and other crafts stores, as well as regular wheat. He also leases fields to alfalfa farmers.

Anderson, a former mayor of Maricopa, sits on the board of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation & Drainage District. Along with other irrigation districts and water users, the MSIDD is slated to lose all its Colorado River water during a Tier One shortage under the proposed Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

“The good times with the CAP water is over,” he said. “We’re going back to the way it was in the ’70s.”

Anderson knew he would have to fully return to groundwater by 2030, but Pinal County farmers had planned for there to be some river water until then. Long-term drought and overallocation have led to Lake Mead falling faster than the basin states expected, which is why a new plan is needed.

But the drought-contingency plan threatens to make the cutoff for Pinal County farmers much more sudden, which is why they’re fighting to keep some river water as a bridge to a future of pumping groundwater.

“It would give us a longer period of time to work on wells, to budget, to do capital improvements, some bonding to help with those types of projects,” he said. “With the drought, it just brought things to the forefront much, much quicker.”

The backstory

There is a reason why farmers in Pinal County are near the back of the line when it comes to doling out river water. In the early 2000s, they swapped more secure rights for a lower priority as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Agreement. This water was subject to availability and would be phased out by 2030. It helped cities and the federal government settle Native American water claims.

In return, the farmers got more than $162 million in debt relief and cheaper water prices.

Attorney Paul Orme has represented Pinal County irrigation districts for years. He said when the Arizona Water Settlement deal and a 2007 drought plan known as the Interim Guidelines were drawn up, circumstances were different.

“We didn’t have anything on the horizon like what we’re facing now,” he said. “I think most folks who are objective in this process say, you know, this should be a share-the-pain kind of situation and we’re taking the big hit of the pain up front.”

He argued that the Drought Contingency Plan ultimately is meant to protect higher priority water by preserving Lake Mead’s long-term health. Pinal County farmers will not have guaranteed access to CAP water after 2030.

Shane Leonard is general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District, which serves agricultural and residential customers in Maricopa County. He said there are legitimate concerns over the economic impact to the state if Pinal County farmers were to lose their river water through a shortage declaration. But he also said politics is at play.

“There are going to be some key folks down at the Legislature that want to know that we at least tried to mitigate some of Pinal County’s issues,” said Leonard, who along with Orme is one of almost 40 members of the drought plan’s steering committee.

Ultimately, it is lawmakers and the governor who give the state the authority to sign on the dotted line with California, Nevada and the Upper Basin states. While acknowledging his clients’ legislative support, Orme said it’s only as strong as the case for fairness they can make.