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Deadline looming for Arizona to sign Drought Contingency Plan

Posted at 10:22 PM, Jan 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-25 00:22:34-05

PHOENIX — The deadline is looming for Arizona to sign on to the Drought Contingency Plan.

The draft legislation that has been put together by the Department of Water Resources would allow Arizona to sign on to a multi-state drought plan with six other southwestern states to stabilize water levels in the Colorado River by agreeing to use less water from the river.

In Arizona that would mean severe cutbacks in the amount of water the state gets from Lake Mead. The cutbacks would impact cities, tribes, industries, and farmers who rely on the water flowing to them through the Central Arizona Project canals.

Understanding how all of this impacts the Valley leads you toward a complicated and political fight over water that has been taking place for decades.

You have to picture Lake Mead and Lake Powell which are fed by the Colorado River as a bank account that six states are drawing from. In this case, those states are Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Nevada. The states are sucking the bank account dry, but there is nothing going back into that account, in the form of snow in this case, from the Colorado mountains, so funds are running very low. This is putting pressure on every state to cut back on how much water they're taking out of this "account."

Thanks to political deals made decades ago, Arizona signed an agreement to be considered a lower priority state when it came to getting water in case of a severe shortage. In another water settlement agreement signed years ago, Pinal County farmers agreed to be a lower priority user in the state of Arizona in exchange for deep discounts to buy water delivered to them via the Central Arizona Project canals.

Living in a desert, all the players involved knew the day of a severe shortage would come. Pinal County farmers have already spent millions of dollars to install drip irrigation systems and build pumps so they can rely on groundwater, and be more efficient as well as self-sufficient. They thought they would have another ten years to work on some of this infrastructure, but a record drought that has been going on for almost 20 years has moved that date up to the present day.

"We knew Lake Mead was dropping, but the drought has gotten much worse recently in the last year," said Dan Thelander, owner of the Tempe Farming company in Maricopa.

Thelander farms about 5,000 acres of land growing everything from alfalfa to corn, durum wheat, and cotton on his land. Now with the shortage of water, Thelander said many farmers worry about the future of farming. The cutbacks could mean almost half of his land would be "fallowed" or left unplanted. That could have a ripple effect on the economy of Pinal County.

"As land goes unplanted we'll buy less fertilizer, less seed, less equipment, and that economic effect is going to ripple through the economy," warned Thelander.

Chelsea McGuire, the Director of Government Relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau, said the news has been grim for Pinal County farmers.

"As soon as 2020, next year, Pinal County farmers are looking at a complete cut of their access to surface water that they have from the Colorado River," said McGuire.

McGuire said farmers have been struggling to prepare for this day.

Tiffany Shed, a fourth-generation cotton farmer from Eloy, said they had spent $18 million repairing wells for this day, but it was not enough.

McGuire added that a recent University of Arizona study shows that agriculture was a 2.3 billion dollar industry in Pinal County, and an impact to that industry would not only be devastating for Pinal County, but it would also impact all of Arizona.

"If Pinal county runs out of water, and suddenly we don't have farmers with the ability, then dairy farms aren't going to get the affordable inputs for our dairy cattle, and that means the price of milk is going to go up," said McGuire.

She added that 40 percent of milk on Arizona grocery store shelves come from Pinal County dairy farms.

During a press conference held last week, Arizona State Senator Vince Leach talked about the importance of agriculture to Arizona.

"Meat, milk, and clothes, don't come from Aisle 15 in Fry's," said Leach.

Farmers said they wanted more time, and certainty of getting funding that was needed to help build up the infrastructure for them to have the ability to pump more water from underground.

"It's our lifeline to keep farming if we're not using the groundwater and more of it, we're just going to go out of business that much faster," said Thelander.

The draft legislation that is being worked on asks lawmakers to sign off on a $30 million appropriation from the state’s general fund to create a system conservation fund, which will be used to compensate water users that will face cutbacks as a result of the state signing onto the Drought Contingency Plan.

The draft legislation also creates a temporary groundwater and irrigation efficiency fund that will be funded by a one-time general fund appropriation of $5 million and a groundwater management fee implemented in Pinal County.

The legislation will also repurpose Pinal’s current groundwater fee so it can be used to fund projects to rehabilitate and construct groundwater wells and other groundwater infrastructure. The state appropriation to Pinal will occur in the current budget year and be paired with federal funding. But, the $30 million appropriations will occur in the 2019-2020 budget year, according to the draft legislation.

It includes a promise of 105,000-acre-feet of Colorado River water for the next three years and 70,000-acre-feet of groundwater for four years after that. The draft legislation also includes $5 million in state cash to drill wells and construct delivery systems for that water.

The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, a group that represents major Arizona cities is warning Pinal county farmers not to demand more in the drought contingency plan.

Warren Tenny, executive director of the association, said agriculture and agribusiness in Pinal represented only about two-tenths of a percent of the state’s economy, half as much as does golf.

The deadline for Arizona to sign on to the Drought Contingency plan is January 31. If the plan is not submitted by January 31, the federal government will get involved.

The Department of Interior will ask each state to list what they are doing to conserve water. State officials have warned that they expect those actions could mean cutbacks that are far more severe than the shortages Arizona would face under the Drought Contingency Plan.

To learn more about this critical situation, click here.