A long-expected and feared water shortage has been declared in the Lower Colorado River Basin, with Pinal County farmers taking the brunt of the first of what could be several cutbacks to Arizona’s water supply.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its annual operations plan for Lake Mead on Aug. 16. It included a first-ever Tier 1 shortage declaration caused by shrinking supplies due to a 20-year drought, likely exacerbated by climate change.
Arizona will get about 18% less of its normal acre-feet in deliveries next year from the Colorado River, with about 320,000 acre-feet of that coming from Pinal County agricultural users’ previous allocation from the Central Arizona Project.
Under the provisions of Arizona’s portion of the seven-state Drought Contingency Plan, in 2022 Pinal agriculture will get about 105,000 acre-feet of “mitigation” water from higher-priority users of river water. The county’s irrigation districts took junior CAP priority in 2004 in return for steep discounts on the water.
By 2023 the farmers were expected to rely on wells to pump up to 70,000 acre-feet from the same groundwater tables the county’s residents, businesses, and industries rely on, but applications for federal grant money to help pay for digging more wells have been stalled by bureaucracy.
“They’re not quite sure what they’re going to do yet, and that’s just because the solutions we have in front of us here are more long-term solutions and they aren’t as cut and dried as they would appear, said Chelsea McGuire, government relations director for the Arizona Farm Bureau and member of a Pinal County farming family.
For the near term, she said, agricultural users are preparing to not plant up to 35% of their land next year as well as try to ramp up their already-high water efficiency, both costly prospects.
Agriculture remains a crucial driver of Pinal County’s economy at about a $4 billion annual economic impact, and is in the top 2% in the U.S. for a total value of agricultural sales, according to a University of Arizona study.
Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said that’s where City residents will see the most immediate effects of the declared water shortage as they reverberate from the farms to other industries that depend on them.
“We have four plants that use dairy, even Abbott uses a lot of milk, and they’re one of our biggest employers. All those businesses would be affected if we can’t get the same amount of milk, because they can’t grow the corn and the alfalfa to feed the cows. It’s a whole chain reaction,” he said.
The City’s water supply isn’t directly affected by the Colorado River shortage, but still must be managed as the drought conditions are expected to continue while the population grows.
Permits for most new groundwater users in the county are still on pause at the Arizona Department of Water Resources, though much-undeveloped land is already permitted.
McFarland said he remains optimistic about the future: “We have some time, not a lot of time, and we’re working on some projects.”
McGuire said agricultural users are looking at longer-term changes along with getting more access to groundwater, which is unlikely to make up for everything they’ve lost. They’re asking, “Can we change some things about what we’re growing and where we’re growing and still make it work for our business, but make it work in this new reality? Those are bigger and very individualized discussions that our farm families are having right now.”
Many of them started at least as far back as 2018 while the Drought Contingency Plan was being hashed out, she added. Federal officials have been projecting the shortage declaration since April, but the mood did shift for farmers once it was locked into place.
“I would say the biggest change in the mood is now they feel like everyone else is paying attention, too,” McGuire said.