Arizona farmers suffer damage from water cuts in the West amid drought

Farmer Nancy Caywood stands in what used to be an alfalfa field. The property is currently abandoned after her farm had its water cut off from the San Carlos Reservoir.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

CASA GRANDE, Ariz.- On dry land where Pinal County farmers have irrigated crops for thousands of years, Nancy Caywood stops her pickup truck along an empty canal and points to an alfalfa field dead.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Caywood, a third-generation farmer who manages 247 acres in suburban Phoenix. “My father and mother have been farming for so many years, and now we may have to give it up.”

Farming in the desert has always been a challenge for Arizona farmers, who grow water-intensive crops like cotton, alfalfa and cow corn. But this year is different. Drought is getting more and more severe and reduce reservoir water level across the western United States prompted the first cut in water supplies from the Colorado River.

The canals that normally carry water from an eastern Arizona reservoir to the Caywood family farm have mostly dried up. The farm will soon operate at less than half of its usual output. And Caywood is grappling with a recent 33% price hike on water she’s not getting.

“We’re not making a dime from this farm right now,” Caywood said. “But we’re trying to keep going because this is what we love.”

More than 40 million people in the West depend on the Colorado River, which flows along the western edge of Arizona. The farmers hardest hit this year have been in Pinal County, a rural area where agriculture is declining and gradually being replaced by solar panels and housing developments.

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

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Drive through Casa Grande, a city of 55,000 between Phoenix and Tucson, and you’ll see miles of bare land, dead cotton fields and dry canals.

Farmers here fear additional water restrictions in the coming weeks as a warming climate continues to reduce the amount of water that normally flows into the Colorado River due to rain and snowmelt.

Reclamation Department in August declared a water shortage in Lake Mead, one of the main reservoirs of the river, after the water level dropped to historic lows. More than a third of Arizona’s water flows up the Colorado River to Lake Mead.

The government’s declaration triggered the Level 1 water cuts, reducing the state’s river water supply by nearly 20%, or 512,000 acres. One acre supplies about two households with water each year.

Arizona farmers use nearly three-quarters of the available water supply to irrigate their crops. As supplies dried up, some farmers in Pinal County couldn’t afford to operate much longer and sold their land to solar developers. Others have left fields empty to cut water use, or experimented with drought-tolerant crops.

Fields of dead cotton stretch for miles in Pinal County, Arizona, as farmers consider mandatory water cuts.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Then there were those who started pumping more groundwater, which raised further concerns because Arizona’s groundwater supply was already being overused.

When Caywood’s grandfather signed the land contract in 1930, he was intrigued by the low cost and development of technology that allowed water to be transported from the canals connected to the San Carlos Reservoir more than 100 miles away.

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

“There’s always the possibility of rain, or a little bit of snow in the East,” Caywood said. “We must have hope. Or we raise our hands and say, ‘We’re done.'”

Super drought tests farmers’ resilience

Arizona’s climate doesn’t get enough rain to grow most crops. However, for thousands of years, rivers and aquifers contained groundwater that supported the state today $23 billion in agriculture.

Climate change and dwindling water supplies have ravaged once-prosperous farms that can endure arid conditions. The Western US is currently experiencing a created super-drought driest two decades in the region for at least 1,200 years. Scientists say 42 per cent of drought severity can be attributed to human-caused climate change, and warn that the condition could persist for years.

The consequences are far-reaching. A prolonged drought will not only reduce income from local farmers in Arizona, but will also create tighter supplies and raise food prices for consumers across the country.

Despite the harsh conditions, Caywood wants to continue the agricultural legacy of her parents, who both passed away last year. In an effort to save her fortune, Nancy regularly organizes farm tours to educate people about the water crisis. Her son, Travis Hartman, leased parcels of land in other irrigation counties that currently have Colorado River water sources.

Farmer Nancy Caywood meets Julie Murphree, outreach director for the Arizona Farm Bureau, in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Caywood continues to plant as much of it as possible, but is not without concern when neighboring farmland is converted into solar-panel developments. She estimates that her ranch could close in three years as costs rise and property taxes remain.

“You have to pay for the leveling, the transplanting, the buying of the seeds, the fertilizing — everything that is involved with the crop,” says Caywood. “Then the question is, can we pay for the water and taxes? Probably not. Are we going to make a living? We don’t know. It’s stressful.”

A key concern is whether Level 1 water restrictions are sufficient to maintain reservoir water levels when less water flows into the river. Reservoirs in the Colorado River basin fell to record lows last year after 22 consecutive years of drought. In just five years, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two largest reservoirs, have lost 50% of their capacity.

Bradley Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute, was not shocked by the drop. After all, he said, scientists have been warning of a decline in reservoir levels in the West for at least four decades.

“The drop in substances in the reservoir is staggering, but we felt it was inevitable once we got to this point,” said Udall. “It’s annoying to say, ‘We told you so’, but man – there’s been a lot of science on this for a long time.”

Hope for Arizona’s Agriculture

Half an hour’s drive from the Caywood estate, fourth-generation farmer Will Thelander runs a portion of his family’s 6,000-acre property in Pinal County.

Thelander, who cultivates crops such as corn, wheat and alfalfa, has lost half of its water supply this year and is fallow almost half of its land. He stopped growing cotton, a particularly water-intensive crop, and focused instead on less demanding crops.

Farmer Will Thelander stands in a field of newly planted corn in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

He does not expect the water shortage problem to improve and warns that farmers will only be able to pump groundwater for a long time until it is completely depleted.

Anticipating more water cuts, Thelander put all her hopes in guayule, a drought tolerant plant, can be harvested and used in rubber production. His farm, Tempe Farming Co., is engaged in research for tire company Bridgestone, which helped Thelander plant 25 hectares of crops in 2019.

Guayule uses half as much water as alfalfa and is harvested every two years. On a larger scale, it can save a lot of water. Based on rough estimateconverting approximately 100,000 acres to guayule production in the area could conserve 150,000 acres of water annually, representing 15% of Pinal County’s agricultural water consumption.

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

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

The Guayule shrub, located at Tempe Farming Company in Casa Grande, Arizona, is a drought tolerant tree that can be harvested and used in rubber production.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Thelander’s farm has suffered a 20% loss in sales this year, a smaller number than expected due to soaring prices of supplies such as hay. While hoping for guayule, which could make up for his farm’s loss in sales by 2026, Thelander is skeptical about the future of farming in Arizona.

“I tell people who want to be farming to choose another profession,” he said. “I hope everyone here can do it. But it’s not going to happen.”

Arizona has turned to several options for accessing other water sources. The state is looking to import groundwater for Phoenix and Tucson from different parts of the state, while also leasing more water from Indian tribes with higher priority water rights.

Another state proposal involves producing fresh water by desalination of water from the Sea of ​​Cortez, located about 50 miles from Arizona’s southern border via Mexico. Some critics have condemned the plan as avoid the need to conserve water.

Meanwhile, water leaders in Arizona, Nevada and California signed an agreement in December to cut their Colorado River water use in the hope of delaying further cuts for years. next. The plan, still under negotiation, requires states to cut 500,000 acres by 2022 and 2023 and help fund water conservation projects.

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

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Phoenix, one of the driest and hottest regions of the country, draws large amounts of water from the Colorado River. This city is Set voluntary loss of some river water under that plan.

Cynthia Campbell, Phoenix’s water resources management consultant, said the department is discussing issues “we’ve never had to consider before” as reservoir levels decline.

“The American West is a canary in the coal mine because of climate change,” Campbell said during a meeting at Phoenix City Hall. “These problems will start to occur in other places as well.”

For Caywood, one big hope is the new infrastructure funding that will be used to update the old wells and channels on her property.

President Joe Biden in November signed a bipartisan infrastructure bill including several billion dollars that could help Arizona farmers deal with the water crisis. The law provides funding for Western water supply projects that improve infrastructure such as watersheds and aquifers.

“We need to protect America’s farms,” ​​Caywood said. “Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves cut off from our food supplies.” “We all need water and we all need food. That’s why we are fighting to keep the game going.”

Climate change and dwindling water supplies have wreaked havoc in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

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