Arizona farmers are being reprimanded for running out of water amid drought in the west

Farmer Nancy Cave stands what was once an alfalfa field. The land is now fallow after the San Carlos Reservoir was cut off from access to its farm water.

Emma Newberger | CNBC

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – In drought-stricken land where Pinal County farmers have been irrigating crops for thousands of years, Nancy Cave stopped her pickup truck by an empty canal and pointed to a field of dead alfalfa.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Caywood, a third-generation farmer who manages 247 acres of property an hour outside Phoenix. “My mom and dad worked the land for so many years, and now we may have to give it up.”

Cultivating in the desert has always been a challenge for Arizona farmers who cultivate water-intensive crops such as cotton, alfalfa and maize for cattle. But this year is different. Across the western United States, severe droughts and declining reservoir levels have cut off water supplies from the Colorado River for the first time.

The canals that normally carried water from the Eastern Arizona Reservoir to Cave’s family farm have largely dried up. The farm will soon be operational in less than half of its normal production. And Caywood is battling a recent 33% price increase for water that it is not getting.

“We’re not making a single penny from this farm right now,” Keud said. “But we’re trying to get stuck because that’s what we like.”

More than 40 million people in the West depend on the Colorado River, which flows along the western edge of Arizona. Farmers have suffered the most this year in Pinal County, a rural expanse of land where agriculture is declining and is slowly being replaced by solar panels and housing development.

An empty irrigation canal runs along a cotton farm near Casa Grand, Arizona, and an alfalfa field owned by Keud Farms.

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Driving through Casa Grand, a city of 55,000 people, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, you’ll see mile after mile of barren land, dead cotton fields, and dry canals.

Farmers here are expecting additional water restrictions in the coming weeks as a warmer climate, usually due to rain and snow, continues to reduce the amount of water in the Colorado River.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced a water shortage in Lake Mid, one of the river’s primary reservoirs, after the water level dropped to a historic low in August. More than one-third of Arizona’s water flows from the Colorado River to Lake Mid.

The government’s announcement triggered a Tier 1 water shortage, which reduced the state’s river water supply by about 20%, or 512,000 acre-feet. One acre-foot of water supplies about two families each year.

Arizona farmers use about three-quarters of the water available to irrigate their crops. Due to a shortage of supplies, some farmers in Pinal County can no longer afford to work and sell their land to solar developers. Others have left the field empty to reduce water use, or experimented with drought-resistant plants.

Dead cotton fields in Pinal County, Arizona stretch for miles, as farmers consider compulsory water reduction.

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Then there are those who have started pumping more groundwater, which raises additional concerns because Arizona’s groundwater supply has already been overused.

When Kevud’s grandfather signed the land in 1930, he was attracted by the cheap price and technological advances that allowed water to flow from the canal connected to the San Carlos Reservoir more than 100 miles away.

Last year, the San Carlos Reservoir dropped to zero acres.

“There’s always the possibility of rainwater or some snow in the past,” Keud said. “We have to have hope. Or we raise our hands and say, ‘We’re done.’

Mohakhara tests the resilience of farmers

The climate in Arizona does not receive enough rainfall to produce most crops. Yet, for thousands of years, rivers and reservoirs containing groundwater have now supported the state’s $ 23 billion agro-industry.

Climate change and declining water supplies have wreaked havoc on once prosperous farms that can tolerate drought. The U.S. West is now facing a catastrophe that has created two of the driest decades in the region in at least 1,200 years. Scientists say 42% of the severity of the drought could be attributed to man-made climate change and warn that the situation could continue for years.

The consequences are far-reaching. A prolonged drought will not only reduce local farm incomes in Arizona, but also increase supply and food prices for consumers across the country.

Despite the brutal situation, Cavade wants to continue the farming legacy of his parents, both of whom died last year. In an effort to recover her property, Nancy often conducts farm tours to educate people about the water crisis. His son, Travis Hartman, has leased plots in other irrigation districts that currently have access to Colorado River water.

Farmer Nancy Kewed meets with Arizona Farm Bureau Outreach Director Julie Murphy at Casa Grande, Arizona.

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Caywood continues to plant as much as possible, but is looking at the discomfort of neighboring farmland being converted into solar panel development. He estimates his farm could close within three years because costs increase and property taxes remain.

“You get the cost of leveling the land, plowing the fields, buying seeds, fertilizing – whatever goes into the crop,” Kev said. “So, the question is, can we pay for water and taxes? Probably not. What are we going to do? We don’t know. It’s very stressful.”

A major concern is whether the Tier 1 water constraints are sufficient to maintain the reservoir level because less water flows into the river. Reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin have dropped to record lows last year after 22 consecutive years of drought. In just five years, Lake Mid and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the river, have lost 50% of their capacity.

Bradley Woodall, a water and climate scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, was not surprised by the drop. After all, he said, scientists have been warning about declining reservoir levels in the west for at least four decades.

“The drop in reservoir content is staggering, but it feels inevitable that we’ve reached this point,” Udal said. “It’s very uncomfortable to say, ‘We told you so,’ but man – there’s been a lot of science about this problem for a long time.”

Hope for Arizona agriculture

Half an hour away from the Caywood property, fourth-generation farmer Will Thalander manages 6,000 acres of his family in Pinal County.

Thalander, who cultivates crops such as maize, wheat and alfalfa, has lost half of its water supply this year and about half of its land is being submerged. He has stopped cultivating cotton, a particularly water-intensive crop, and has instead turned to low-demand crops.

Farmer Will Thalander stands on a newly planted corn field in Casa Grand, Arizona.

Emma Newberger | CNBC

He does not expect the water shortage problem to improve, and warns that farmers will only be able to pump groundwater until it is completely exhausted.

In hopes of further reducing water, Thalander has placed all its hopes on Guaul, a drought-tolerant plant that can be harvested and used in rubber production. His farm, Tempe Farming Co., is taking part in research for the tire company Bridgestone, which helped Thalander plant a 25-acre crop in 2019.

Guayule uses half the amount of alfalfa water and is harvested every two years. On a larger scale, it can save a lot of water. According to preliminary estimates, converting an area of ​​about 100,000 acres into gaul production could save 150,000 acre-feet of water per year, representing 15% of Pinal County’s agricultural water use.

“There’s no way to make more water,” Thalander said. “The only thing farmers can do is pivot, try new crops – do what they can.”

“But not much like the desert,” he added.

Guayul shrubs, located at Tempe Farming Co., Casa Grande, Arizona, are drought-tolerant plants that can be cut and used in rubber production.

Emma Newberger | CNBC

Thalander’s farm has suffered a 20% revenue loss this year, lower than expected due to skyrocketing prices of supplies like straw. Although optimistic about Guaul being able to make up for the potential loss of his farm’s revenue by 2026, Thalander is skeptical about the future of agriculture in Arizona.

“I tell those who want to farm to choose a different career,” he said. “I hope everyone here can do it. But it won’t happen.”

Arizona has become one of several options for accessing other water sources. The state wants to import groundwater from different parts of the state to Phoenix and Tucson and lease more water from Indian tribes, including high priority water rights.

Another state proposal involves the production of freshwater from the Cortez Sea, about 50 miles across the southern border of Mexico from Arizona. Some critics have condemned the plan to avoid the need for water conservation.

Meanwhile, water leaders in Arizona, Nevada and California signed an agreement in December to reduce their use of Colorado River water in hopes of delaying further cuts in the coming years. The plan, which is still under discussion, requires states to reduce 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023 and to finance water conservation projects.

Will Thelander, a farmer in Casa Grande, Arizona, walks through his wheat field.

Emma Newberger | CNBC

Phoenix, one of the warmest and driest regions in the country, draws large amounts of water from the Colorado River. Under that plan, the city would voluntarily lose some river water.

Cynthia Campbell, a water resources management consultant at Phoenix, said the department was discussing issues “we never had to worry about before” as reservoir levels dropped.

“American West is a canary in coal mining for climate change,” Campbell said at a meeting at Phoenix City Hall. “These problems will start to happen elsewhere.”

For Cave, a big hope is that the new infrastructure fund will be able to update the aging wells and canals of his property.

President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan infrastructure bill in November that includes billions of dollars that could help Arizona farmers address the water crisis. The law provides funding for western water projects that will improve infrastructure such as reservoirs and underground reservoirs.

“We need to protect American farms. If we don’t, we will find ourselves cut off from food supplies,” Kev said. “We all need water and we all need food. So we’re fighting to stay in the game.”

A changing climate and declining water supplies have wreaked havoc in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Emma Newberger | CNBC

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