The Gila River winds through many lands before and after it enters Arizona, including the territory of some Native American tribes that historically have relied on the water for their homes and their crops. One of those, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has thrown shade on any future New Mexico Unit diversion by virtue of their refusing to be a party to virtually any aspect of the project, or its affiliated agreements.
The 2004 federal Arizona Water Settlements Act was intended to address the fact that some communities — particularly Native American communities — had long been on the short end of the stick when it came to water rights. The Central Arizona Project, known as the CAP, is a major diversion of Colorado River water that began supplying water to Phoenix and Tucson in the late 1980s — but it is only an outsized example of diversions that impacted downstream communities in southern Arizona over the years.
Four New Mexico counties are also included in the settlement legislation: Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna. As a result, the New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project was created, making available millions of dollars from the settlement. Farmers and landowners in southwestern New Mexico banded together to form the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project aiming to spend that money.
Should the N.M. CAP Entity proceed with their plan to divert up to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila and San Francisco rivers, a rarely discussed sticking point lies ahead for the project. The AWSA that provides the money for the project includes by reference what is called the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement, or “CUFA,” a deal among the federal government and downstream users of the Gila River.
Before the N.M. CAP Entity could start diverting water — should the project come to fruition — there are requirements that it must satisfy, most of which revolve around the San Carlos Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on San Carlos Apache tribal land. Most of the water users in that area and downstream signed on to the CUFA in 2005 and 2006, and are therefore guaranteed exchange water, or “credits,” for lost water resulting from the diversion upstream.
“The CUFA is a complex document,” said Dominique Work, a lawyer with the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission. “One requirement is that New Mexico can’t start diverting water unless there is at least 30,000 acre-feet in the San Carlos Reservoir at the beginning of each year.”
Even when the reservoir has 30,000 acre-feet in it at the beginning of the year, sometimes the water quality is poor, which is also a sticking point. The 22 water users that signed on to the CUFA agreed to forgo the right to sue over water quality or quantity.
But in a glaring exception, the San Carlos Tribe did not sign on to the agreement. They have also refused to allow a pipeline — as part of the AWSA — to be built on their land.
“The pipeline would provide water from farmers in the Safford, Arizona, area,” as part of the water settlement, Work said. “The farmers were given $15 million in the AWSA to build that pipeline. They built it until they got to the land boundary of the tribe, and the tribe said, ‘You aren’t building that on our reservation.’ So there is a means to get the water — and that is a prerequisite.”
Since the tribe has both refused to complete the project and refused to sign the CUFA, it is debatable whether their water needs would be met by the half-built pipeline.
Work asserted that the “mechanism is satisfied” for getting the tribe the water it is due. But it appears that the tribe — which Entity Director Anthony Gutierrez points out “only get[s] 6,000 acre-feet of water per year from the reservoir” — apparently wants their water to come from the Gila River. And that raises water quality issues.
Stephanie Russo Baca, staff attorney at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center at the University of New Mexico School of Law, isn’t so certain that San Carlos wouldn’t have standing to sue. She interprets the AWSA as giving the tribe the right to litigate against the Entity and whoever else it feels is culpable for low water quality.
“The Arizona Water Settlements Act states that the United States — on behalf of the San Carlos Apache Tribe — or the tribe itself can assert any claim against any party, including any claim for water rights, injury to water rights, or injury to water quality,” she said. “Even though the San Carlos Apache Tribe is a non-signatory to the CUFA, this does not preclude them from asserting their rights.”
On July 2, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) entity that oversees projects using federal money in the New Mexico Unit Fund slashed several components from the proposed Gila River diversion. The cuts reduced the project’s price tag by about $83 million, but also the amount of water that could be diverted and used for irrigation.
It’s the latest in a decades-long saga of how federal money should be spent on water projects in the southwest corner of the state.
Joe Runyan is the CAP entity representative from the Gila Farm Irrigation Association in the Cliff-Gila Valley. He said the Gila diversion project had been “dramatically minimized” since its beginnings, making it cost-effective and beneficial to farmers and other water users in the region.
“It would be irresponsible for us not to give future generations access to this water,” Runyan said. “We should be at the table when it comes to accessing Colorado River water. The next generation will be glad we did.”
Gila diversion supporters say the diversion project will improve regional agriculture and provide a sustainable water supply for rural areas during drought. But years of back-and-forth between the CAP entity, the Interstate Stream Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation – and a looming federal deadline – have prevented much progress toward that goal.
Opponents argue the diversion is expensive and will benefit only a few irrigators at great detriment to the region’s environment.
“There’s no hope of this project on its merits, but unfortunately we live in a time when merits don’t always matter,” [Norman] Gaume said at a New Mexico Wildlife Federation lecture in Albuquerque this past week. “The whole thing is upside down. It’s just a mess, and a shame.”
New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who are all Democrats, oppose the diversion.
Commission members are appointed by the governor. Lujan Grisham hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make an appointment, but in April she did veto $1.7 million in funding requested by the ISC for Gila diversion planning and design. She also promised to end the project in her October 2018 water plan published during her campaign.
Gaume said if Lujan Grisham appoints a new Interstate Stream Commission, the Gila diversion will likely die, and the federal funds would still be available for smaller water conservation projects. But at this point, the ISC and CAP are moving forward with a business plan…
“The heart of this proposed action (the Gila diversion) is to use and preserve water for New Mexico that otherwise would be lost to Arizona, and has been for 50 years,” said CAP lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. “Our response to public officials who speak against this will suggest that they are doing something unprecedented by letting water go to a neighboring state.”
An economic analysis prepared by a federal consultant for Reclamation as part of the June draft environmental impact statement says the diverted water could support high-value, “thirsty” crops for farmers.
Those crops include lavender, hemp, potatoes, pecans and grapes. Many farmers in the region currently grow lower-value crops like alfalfa and cotton.
Revenue from the new crops might offset the estimated high price for farmers to access the diverted water. But the latest project changes won’t be able to be divert and store as much water, so that original crop revenue estimate likely won’t be as high.
Four project sites on the Gila could divert as much as 14,000 acre-feet (4.6 billion gallons) annually to four counties in southwest New Mexico: Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo. That’s enough water to supply about 57,000 Albuquerque homes in a year…
Fourteen native fish species live in the Gila River basin, including the endangered Gila trout. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher bird, loach minnow and the northern Mexican garter snake also call the river home…
The Interstate Stream Commission will visit proposed Gila diversion sites in August.
This is Laura Paskus’ final article for The New Mexico Political Report:
Plans for the Gila River diversion have changed. Again.
At a meeting in Silver City on July 2, members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity voted to scale back development plans on the Gila River and one of its tributaries in southwestern New Mexico.
The vote took place following completion of a preliminary draft environmental impact statement (PDEIS) about the group’s plans in the Cliff-Gila Valley, on the San Francisco River and in Virden, a town in Hidalgo County near the Arizona border.
As proposed by the CAP Entity, the waters of the Gila River would be diverted, about three-and-a-half miles downstream from where the river runs out of the Gila Wilderness, via a 155-foot concrete weir wall. The project would also replace and repair existing ditches in the Cliff-Gila Valley, build storage ponds in the valley and in Winn Canyon, and create facilities for aquifer storage and recovery.
The proposal also called for storage ponds in Virden. And on the San Francisco River, the CAP Entity planned to replace existing diversions with a new weir and build an earthen embankment dam and reservoir in Weedy Canyon, west of Highway 180 between Reserve and Alma.
Altogether, along with improvements to existing ditches, the project would have cost more than $120 million to build.
Now, many of those components are off the table.
According to Jeff Riley, manager of the engineering division at the Phoenix area office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the CAP Entity’s attorney, Pete Domenici, Jr. worked up a modified alternative to fit within the budget of the federal construction subsidy, which is about $56 million.
Riley explained that the modified proposal still includes a Gila River diversion and some of the storage ponds, but will leave out Winn Canyon storage and the aquifer storage and recovery components. It also excludes the Weedy Canyon dam and storage on the San Francisco. The earlier plans for Virden remain.
“What this accomplished, was a project where all three areas”—the Cliff-Gila Valley, Virden and the San Francisco River—“still had pieces intact, but the cost would fall to about $50 million in today’s dollars,” said Riley…
Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:
#1: GILA RIVER, NEW MEXICO
Threat: Water Diversion, Climate Change
Flowing out of the nation’s first wilderness area, the Gila River supports outstanding examples of southwestern riparian forest, cold-water fisheries and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The Gila River provides significant economic value to the region, with superb opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based specialty travel and wilderness experiences. It is also important to indigenous peoples who have lived in southwestern New Mexico for thousands of years. Many cultural sites are found along the Gila River and throughout its watershed. Furthermore, the Hispanic community has a culture, heritage and way of life tied to the river and forest, where generations continue to hunt, fish, hike and enjoy family time together.
After more than a decade of planning and more than $15 million spent, a substantial diversion project is in the last year of review under the National Environmental Policy Act. A draft environmental impact statement is expected in April 2019 with a record of decision by the end of 2019. Despite the projected high costs, severe delays in schedule and feasibility issues with multiple iterations of the diversion proposal, this project continues to move forward with likely support from the Trump administration.
In this critical year, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham can eliminate the threat to the Gila River by withdrawing the project from the Arizona Water Settlements Act process and instead spend available AWSA funding on non-diversion projects to meet the water needs of communities throughout southwest New Mexico. Governor Lujan Grisham has pledged to end work on the diversion by using these funds more efficiently on other projects and to ensure that the Gila River is protected by federal law. We urge her to fulfill this promise, saving taxpayers and water users money, providing direct benefits for area farmers and businesses and protecting the Gila River for future generations.
American Rivers appreciates the collaboration and efforts of our partners:
Gila Conservation Coalition
Center for Biological Diversity
Upper Gila Watershed Alliance
One threat down one to go
From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):
Last week, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the last of the bills from the 2019 legislative session, she line-item vetoed $1.698 million in New Mexico Unit funding for the Gila River diversion.
Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s director of communications, said Lujan Grisham has been clear about her views on the diversion project. He added that the administration’s opposition to it “does not come down to one veto or one source of funds but rather the policies that will be spearheaded by the OSE and ISC.” The Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission are the state’s two water agencies.
Since January 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has deposited more than $60 million into New Mexico’s coffers for the project. Already, about $15 million of that money has already been spent (plus about another $2 million in state money), even though plans for the project have yet to be solidified and no one has yet identified buyers for the water, which would cost about $450 per acre foot. (And those contracts would need to be approved by both the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the U.S. Department of the Interior.)
After the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted in 2014 to build the diversion, the state created the New Mexico Central Arizona Project. Made up of representatives of local irrigation districts, counties and towns, the entity oversees its construction, maintenance and operation. To receive the full federal subsidy for the project, the entity is supposed to have completed environmental studies and received approval from the secretary of the Interior Department by the end of 2019. But despite the millions of dollars spent, the project is about 18 months behind schedule.
All eyes are on Arizona and California with Brenda Burman’s extended deadline coming up on Monday. They are dealing with the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which really should be a plan to address the declining supply and increasing demand that causes an annual deficit. (H/T Eric Kuhn over at Inkstain.
Water poured into an artificial wetland next to the Gila River near Sacaton as Arizona’s leading proponents of a Colorado River drought plan celebrated the state’s progress in moving toward a deal.
Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community touted the restoration project as an example of putting water back into a river that has was sucked dry over the years, and a symbolic step in promoting sustainable water management in the state. The inauguration ceremony on the reservation featured traditional singing by men and boys who shook gourd rattles in unison.
Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said the community, which has agreed to contribute water under the proposed Colorado River deal, is playing a vital role in helping to finish the three-state Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP.
“This is very important and very historic,” Lewis told the audience of community members, politicians and water managers. “It goes beyond politics. It goes to the benefit and the future sustainability and existence of all of us here.”
Unresolved issues remain
Yet even as Arizona’s top water officials expressed optimism about finishing the drought agreement after months of difficult negotiations, they also voiced concerns that unresolved issues in California still could upend the entire deal.
More than 250 miles to the west in California’s Imperial Valley, leaders of the irrigation district that controls the largest share of Colorado River water were still discussing a key condition of their participation. Imperial Irrigation District officials announced at a meeting on Friday afternoon that the federal Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to their condition that the drought package include linkage to funding for the Salton Sea.
They said federal officials will write a strong letter of support backing IID’s requests for $200 million in Farm Bill funding for wetlands projects around the shrinking sea. The projects are aimed at keeping down dust along the shorelines and salvaging deteriorating habitat for fish and birds.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, the U.S. solicitor and staff are finalizing a letter stating that “they consider the restoration of the Salton Sea is a critical ingredient of the drought contingency plans and cannot be ignored, and they stand prepared to help the IID with the Department of Agriculture to try to get funding in whatever way possible,” said IID attorney Charles Dumars.
He cautioned that it was “a building block, nothing more,” but said it was a big one that could be used to persuade Agriculture Department officials to allocate funds for the receding lake…
The board also voted unanimously to oppose a supposed “white knight” offer by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, to provide IID’s portion of water to be kept in Lake Mead if the agency doesn’t sign on to the drought plan.
Several board members and people in the audience chided the Los Angeles-based agency for trying to interfere in their process, saying it was ignoring the public-health issues at the Salton Sea created by the withdrawal of Colorado River water…
IID officials also discussed a timeline that Burman and her staff presented at a recent meeting in Las Vegas. The aim, Martinez said, is to have agreements adopted by all parties…in Phoenix on March 14 or 15 to sign a joint letter to Congress endorsing the plan…
Arizona working to wrap up its part
The Gila River Indian Community’s involvement is key because the community is entitled to about a fourth of the water that passes through the Central Arizona Project, and it has offered to kick in some water to make the drought agreement work.
Arizona’s plan for divvying up the water cutbacks involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as compensation payments for those that contribute water. Those payments are to be covered with more than $100 million from the state and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages the CAP Canal. Much of the money would go toward paying for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community…
Gov. Ducey signed a package of legislation on Jan. 31 endorsing the Drought Contingency Plan. Arizona still needs to finish a list of internal water agreements to make the state’s piece of the deal work.
State officials have presented a list of a dozen remaining agreements, two of which would require the approval of the Gila River Indian Community. But Cooke said not all the agreements need to be signed for the three-state deal to move forward.
Cooke said he’s focused most of all on finishing a framework agreement for Arizona focusing on “intentionally created surplus,” a term for unused water that is stored in Lake Mead.
Here’s the release from the Gila River Indian Community (June M. Shorthair):
Today, elected officials of the Gila River Indian Community, including the Governor, Lt. Governor and several Council members, determined that the Community had received sufficient assurances that HB 2476 was “dead” and that the Community could re-engage in the effort to finalize the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan Implementation Plan. Community elected officials came to this determination after meetings with Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, and House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and Senator Lisa Otondo.
Due to unjustified attacks on the Community through the Arizona legislative process in the form of HB 2476, earlier this week the Community informed the Chairs of the Arizona DCP Steering Committee that if the Arizona legislature continued its consideration of HB 2476, the Community would have no choice but to withdraw from the Arizona Drought Contingency Implementation Plan altogether. Based on the assurances received at today’s meetings, especially those from Speaker Pro Tem Shope, the Community officials determined that HB 2476 is dead and as a result that the Community is able to move forward with the Arizona DCP Implementation Plan despite this unwarranted attack on the Community.
Speaking for the Community, Governor Stephen R. Lewis stated, “On behalf of the Community, I want to thank Rep. Shope and Rep. Fernandez for making the effort to come and speak with us directly about this very troubling attack on our Community. They listened carefully to our concerns, and Rep. Shope assured us he would take them back to the Legislature to help others understand why we perceived this legislation as highly inappropriate and an attack on our Community. He also provided us with very solid assurances that this legislation is truly dead and that there would be no further consideration of it, as did Rep. Fernandez. Their word on this is what we need to confirm this legislation is truly not moving forward and I am pleased that the Community will be able to rejoin the State’s efforts to get DCP over the finish line.”
Rep. Shope said, “As one of the members representing the Community, and a member of House leadership, I believed it was essential to come and meet with Community leaders and hear their concerns. I was pleased to provide them with the assurances that I have received from the Speaker, and my own, which I believe make clear that this bill is truly dead and will not be raised again this legislative session”
Rep. Fernandez stated, “I completely understand why the Community would have viewed this bill as the attack that it was. It is not only bad policy, but an abuse of our legislative process, and I was pleased to commit to the Community’s leaders the support of my caucus in fighting this legislation if it ever is brought back up, which I do not think will happen.”
Senator Otondo confirmed the Senate Democratic Caucus position in opposition to the bill, and sympathized with the Community, stating “I completely understand why the Community and its members would be outraged at this kind of unwarranted attack. From what I know, far from being the bad actor that they were portrayed to be, they are actually the wronged party. While most of the farmers in the Upper Valley are doing all they can to work with Community and the Community is cooperating with them, there is a small group that simply won’t pay attention to the law of the Gila River. I think the Community is fully within its rights to try to get them to comply with the law.”
Governor Lewis concluded, “This meeting was a critical turning point in Arizona’s DCP and Rep. Shope and Rep. Fernandez, and Sen. Otondo, all deserve great credit for taking this important step to reach out to us and hear our concerns and assure us of their continued support. It is this kind of leadership that will help us all move DCP over the finish line. This was an unfortunate chapter in this historic effort, but we will now do all we can to put this in the rear view mirror, and move forward together.”
The purpose of HB 2476 is ostensibly to repeal a cardinal principal of Arizona water law, the so-called “use it or lose it” rule codified in the State’s very first water code as a rule of forfeiture. Under the forfeiture statute any water right holder who does not use his water rights for an uninterrupted period of five years, without a legitimate excuse specified in the statute, can be found to have forfeited that right. This “use it or lose it” principle is an essential element of the water codes across the arid West, and appears in 16 different state water codes in almost the same form. If HB 2476 were enacted, Arizona would become the first and only state in the West to repeal such a forfeiture statute.
On February 19, 2019, a hearing was held on HB 2476. While the hearing was supposed to focus on the forfeiture statute and its effect on certain water users, the testimony and questions instead focused on the Community’s actions in federal district court to legitimately enforce its settlement and to protect its water rights under its settlement. Most of the witnesses who testified actually stated in open testimony that they were concerned for their “hot” land farming practices, a term that refers to a practice of illegally using water from the Gila River, water to which the Community has a clear and superior right. The misstatements made during the testimony and questions posed made it very clear that this hearing was intended to be a form of “show trial” for the Community, whose real purpose could only have been to somehow intimidate the Community into not enforcing its rights. At the end of the hearing, the proponent of HB 2476 asked that his bill be “held” so that he could review its legality and perhaps refine it so it could perhaps be raised again at a future time, leaving the Community with no clear indication as to whether the bill would move forward or not.
This decision to hold HB 2476 put the Community in an untenable position, as it could not proceed with its participation with DCP until this issue was clearly put to rest. Today’s meetings provided the Community with an opportunity to discuss directly with key members of the Arizona Legislature whether this legislation is for all intents and purposes “dead” for this session. In the meeting with the Rep. Shope, as a member of House leadership he was able to convey to Community tribal leadership that Speaker Bowers had assured Rep. Shope that the Speaker did not intend to take any further action to move HB 2476 forward this session. In addition Rep. Shope also assured Community leaders that even if Speaker Bowers might decide to move the legislation forward, Rep. Shope would himself vote against it on the floor. During the meeting, Community leaders made clear why they felt HB 2476 was a purposeful attack on the Community and how the hearing had completely misrepresented the Community’s legitimate actions and efforts to enforce its water settlement rights,. Rep. Shope offered to take these concerns back to the legislature to help educate other members on this issue.
In a separate meeting with the Democratic House Minority Leader, Rep. Charlotte Fernandez, and with Sen. Lisa Otondo, they both reiterated their caucuses’ support for the Community in its opposition to this unjustified attack in the form of legislation.
In a separate decision, Community leaders authorized its water team to continue its efforts to protect the Community’s water settlement and to enforce the Community’s rights as and when necessary.
A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water that the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.
But Lewis said he learned that House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.
“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.
And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.
“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.
Bowers declined to comment on the latest development.
But an aide to the speaker said that, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.
That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.
“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.
And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.
“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’ ”
Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made approval of the DCP a key goal, sidestepped questions about the new hurdle, with press aide Patrick Ptak saying only that his boss is focused on working with other states to get Congress to approve necessary changes in federal law.
The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476, concerns at what point people who had one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.
Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.
MARICOPA — In satellite images, the farm fields in central Arizona stand out like an emerald green quilt draped across the desert landscape.
Seeing it from the ground level, the fields of alfalfa, corn and wheat are interspersed with the furrows of freshly plowed fields. After the cotton harvest, stray fluffy bolls lie scattered on the ground like patches of snow.
A large share of the water that flows to these fields comes from the Colorado River, and the supply of water is about to decrease dramatically.
Under Arizona’s plan for coping with drought, farmers who’ve received Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal for more than three decades now expect to see their allotment slashed more than 60 percent, from 275,000 acre-feet to 105,000 acre-feet per year for the first three years of a shortage. After that, their supply of Colorado River water will be cut off and they plan to rely solely on pumping groundwater from wells.
The plan to shut off deliveries of surface water to farms in Pinal County shows how the demands of agriculture are starting to collide like never before with water scarcity and climate change in the Southwest. The strategy of turning to groundwater pumping will test the limits of Arizona’s regulatory system for its desert aquifers, which targets some areas for pumping restrictions and leaves others with looser rules or no regulation at all.
In Pinal County, which falls under these groundwater rules, the return to a total reliance on wells reflects a major turning point and raises the possibility that this part of Arizona could again sink into a pattern of falling groundwater levels — just as it did decades ago, before the arrival of Colorado River water…
With the imported supply of water now about to go away, the farmers in the area are bracing for changes that they see approaching much more rapidly than they had anticipated. A first-ever shortage on the Colorado River could be declared starting next year. When the flow of water through the CAP canal decreases, no other group of people will feel the direct effects as acutely as the growers and laborers who run the farms in Pinal County…
“As I lose water, I will fallow land,” Thelander said as he drove his pickup past fields of cotton and alfalfa. “We’re going to have to lay off employees.”
Drought plan maps out new future
The Colorado River irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmlands and supplies about 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles.
Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the worsening effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, now sits just 40 percent full and approaching a shortage.
Under the proposed Drought Contingency Plan for the river’s lower basin, Arizona would join with California and Nevada to take less water out of Lake Mead in an effort to prevent it from falling to disastrously low levels.
During the Legislature’s discussions of Arizona’s piece of the drought deal, the plan to provide state funding to Pinal irrigation districts prompted debate. There also was debate about how the agriculture economy will be affected.
The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which represents cities that supply water to more than half the state’s population, said in a Jan. 7 economic analysis that Pinal County agriculture represented about 0.2 percent of Arizona’s economy in 2016, and that about 11 percent of the county’s agriculture industry is at risk due to the water cutbacks under the Drought Contingency Plan.
While growers will have to shrink their crop irrigation by one-third on average, the association said, much of the county’s farming economy is based on dairies and beef production. It said feed for the cattle can be brought from outside Pinal County.
The county produces much of Arizona’s milk, and a large portion of the milk comes from Shamrock Farms. The dairy has about 12,000 cows…
Crop choices, groundwater use scrutinized
Given all the stresses on water supplies in the desert Southwest, the farmers in Pinal have faced questions about their choices of crops, their irrigation methods and their plan to rely on more groundwater pumping. Critics have asked whether it makes sense to continue growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert. They’ve also called for more investment in using water more efficiently on the farms.
Sandy Bahr, who leads the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the plan to use taxpayers’ money for new wells and other water infrastructure. She said this goes against decades of water policy in Arizona aimed at reducing the pressures on groundwater supplies, from the construction of the Central Arizona Project canal starting in the 1970s to the passage of the state’s landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980.
“After decades of trying to limit groundwater pumping, we see kind of this test of the Groundwater Management Act,” Bahr said. She said the plan approved by the Legislature will now promote more groundwater pumping and over-exploitation of aquifers.
If that’s going to be allowed, she asked, then shouldn’t the landowners in Pinal “have to pay for it themselves?”
Bahr said she’s concerned that the plan doesn’t involve looking at how different types of crops could help in using less water.
“Instead, almost every facet of what the Legislature passed is tied to getting water to these Pinal County interests,” she said.
Some conservationists and lawmakers have also raised questions about how efficiently water is being used on Pinal’s farms, and what steps could be taken to promote the installation of more water-saving irrigation systems.
Researchers who’ve looked at ways of improving irrigation methods have found big potential for saving water on farms, which use more than 70 percent of the water supply across the Colorado River basin. When researchers with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water think tank, examined water use along the Colorado River in a 2013 study, they found that irrigating alfalfa more efficiently (through a practice known as “regulated deficit irrigation”) could save nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year.
They also estimated that replacing about 10 percent of the alfalfa with cotton or wheat across the river basin could save about 250,000 acre-feet per year. That’s nearly half of the total water cutbacks that Arizona will have to face under the first year of a shortage.
Thelander said people often ask him about his choices of crops.
“I always get the question: Why don’t you farm crops that are more water-efficient?” he said. “We spend a tremendous amount of money on water. And if I could make money farming low-water use crops, I would do that. There’s already a big carrot there for us to do that.”
One example is barley, which he said is one of the lowest water-use crops that can be grown in the area.
“But if we farm barley, we lose a tremendous amount of money,” Thelander said. “We’re always looking for lower water-use crops that we can make a profit on.”
How Pinal got Colorado River water
In the 1930s, growers in Pinal County dug wells and began irrigating farms with groundwater. The farms expanded through the 1950s and kept relying on wells.
The agriculture investors in the ’50s and ’60s included the actor John Wayne, who bought land to grow cotton and raise cattle, and also invested in building a feedlot.
When construction began on the CAP Canal in 1973, the project promised to help sustain the farms in central Arizona while allowing them to draw less from the aquifers.
After decades of heavy pumping in Pinal County, the water tables had fallen dramatically. The ground sank in places as the aquifers were depleted. The overpumping and the sinking ground left lasting symptoms: In several areas around the region, gaping fissures opened up in the earth.
In 1985, construction began on a canal system that would run from the main CAP canal to the fields in Pinal’s Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. The district paid for the nearly $100 million canal system, issuing bonds and financing 80 percent of the cost with zero-interest loans from the federal government.
The first water deliveries flowed to farms in 1987, and the system was finished in 1989. It included the 56-mile Santa Rosa Canal, as well as the 17-mile East Main Canal and 130 miles of lateral canals. Through these arteries, the farms gained access to Colorado River water.
Brian Betcher helped design the project while working for a consulting firm in the early 1980s, and in 1988 he joined the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District as its engineer.
Under Arizona’s groundwater law, the farmlands were within the Pinal “active management area” and the regulatory system required that the irrigated areas not expand with the arrival of imported water.
“For every acre-foot of Colorado River water that was received, we had to reduce groundwater pumping by the same amount,” said Betcher, who is now the district’s general manager.
In 1989, the district assumed control of all the farms’ wells, acquiring them from the landowners with 40-year leases. The district has since delivered growers a mix of groundwater and Colorado River water.
While one of the reasons for building the CAP Canal was to help wean agriculture from groundwater, it was also to supply cities. And the Pinal farmers knew they were at the bottom of the list in the priority system.
As they began to irrigate with Colorado River water, Betcher said, the farmers were aware that the suburbs would continue to expand into farming areas and would have the highest priority for water.
“It was well-known that there would be a decreasing supply over time,” Betcher said. “It was pretty well understood that over time, the higher priority users, which were cities and industry, would grow into their allocations. And that would leave less water for agriculture.”
The irrigation districts’ initial contracts stipulated deliveries of Colorado River water through 2042. The way the system worked throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Orme said, the districts were able to use the available water that remained after cities and Native American tribes had taken their allotments.
The contracts didn’t list specific quantities of water but rather percentages dividing what was left among the irrigation districts. So, exactly how much water would be available for agriculture in any year was never certain.
In the early 2000s, efforts to settle several water disputes were underway in Arizona. Among those issues: Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community were seeking to settle their longstanding water-rights claims; Arizona officials were in a dispute with the federal government over the repayment costs for the construction of the CAP canal; and the Pinal irrigation districts were in a disagreement with CAP officials over how much they were being charged for water.
When the parties reached the landmark 2004 settlement, the farmers agreed to take a step down in the water priority system. Some of the water that they had been using went to tribes and cities. In exchange, the farmers would get water for about a third of the price that CAP had proposed to charge.
At the time, Lake Mead was nearly full and the farmers felt confident they’d have an assured supply of water until 2030. Their group of water users, who took water from what was called the Agricultural Pool, faced a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030.
But the growers and their irrigation districts saw the deal as beneficial because, as Orme put it, “an affordable 25-year water supply is better than a 40-year unaffordable water supply.”
As Colorado River water has continued to flow to farms, it has allowed groundwater levels to stabilize and recover somewhat. In some areas, Betcher said, the water table has risen significantly.
Over the years, the city of Maricopa has grown and replaced some of the farmland in Pinal. Around Casa Grande, new subdivisions have also sprung up.
Even after losing some farmlands to development, the Maricopa-Stanfield district still has about 60,000 irrigated acres.
This year, the district plans to deliver 43 percent of its water from the CAP canal and get the remaining 57 percent from groundwater pumping. Even before the drought deal, the area has been gradually relying more on wells. Betcher said the district has a program to rehabilitate old wells and has added to its groundwater pumping capacity during the past decade.
Of the $50 million sought by irrigation districts in central Arizona, about $15 million would go to Betcher’s district. The money will go toward drilling new wells and building pipelines to carry the groundwater to the canal system.
Betcher said wells in the district are pumping water from 500-600 feet underground.
When the new wells go online, they will likely pump down the water table again. Just how quickly the aquifer may decline isn’t clear. Together with another irrigation district, Maricopa-Stanfield is paying a consultant to prepare a study evaluating the groundwater supply…
The farmers still could return to their current schedule of water deliveries, Orme said, under a scenario in which heavy snow and rain ends the 19-year drought and sends Lake Mead rebounding.
But even with the snowpack in the river’s upper basin about average so far this winter, a shortage still looks likely. And federal water managers have been pressing for the states to finish the Drought Contingency Plan. It’s unclear whether that will happen before a March 4 deadline set by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.