Pi­nal farm­ing is a big un­known

As sup­ply dwin­dles, farm­ers, tribes and ag in­ter­ests feud over Lake Mead

The Arizona Republic - - Opinions - Joanna All­hands Colum­nist Ari­zona Repub­lic USA TO­DAY NET­WORK Reach All­hands at joanna.all­hands@ari­zonare­pub­lic.com.

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 the 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.

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.

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 of 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.

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.

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 the 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 Pool users that also would be cut dur­ing short­ages un­der the DCP.

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

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 have only a few weeks left un­til the 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.

How long should other wa­ter users sus­tain Pi­nal County farm­ing? That ques­tion may be key to Ari­zona’s role in the Lower Basin Drought Con­tin­gency Plan.

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