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With Colorado River water cuts, some Pinal farmers drill wells. For others, fields sit dry

Jayson Cline works on his cotton harvester in a field farmed by Paul Ollerton, Jan. 23, 2022, east of Casa Grande.
Jayson Cline works on his cotton harvester in a field farmed by Paul Ollerton, Jan. 23, 2022, east of Casa Grande.

CASA GRANDE — Paul Ollerton pulled white locks off a cotton boll.

“You can tell the yield is going to be better on that second part of the field,” he said, looking over a patch of standing cotton surrounded by acres of dry bare land.

Ollerton, who goes by “Paco,” was tracking the CP690 picker’s progress on a late January day as it made its way across the last 18 acres of the farm he rents between Coolidge and Casa Grande. As the machine leaned into its third turn, it spit out another 5,000-pound cylindrical bale of cotton, wrapped in tight yellow plastic.

This is his 42nd season planting cotton in Pinal County. The market price is bad these days, but he is also getting paid for the seed. Farming, he said, is a hard habit to quit.

But as drought continues to squeeze the region's water supplies, growers are being tested these days.

A round bale of cotton in a field farmed by Paul Ollerton, Jan. 23, 2022, east of Casa Grande.
A round bale of cotton in a field farmed by Paul Ollerton, Jan. 23, 2022, east of Casa Grande.

Last year, the amount of water for agricultural use flowing through the Central Arizona Project Canal fell significantly. Pinal County farmers received about 87% less water in direct allotments than the year before. The multi-state Drought Contingency Plan mandated the cuts in an attempt to keep the river flowing past the dams and Pinal County growers absorbed the deepest losses.

On the first day of 2023, as Tier 2A shortages went into effect, direct water allotments from CAP ended entirely across wide areas of Pinal County. Individual agreements and groundwater storage credits allowed some growers and districts to keep a straw in the canal, but the majority of farmers were largely cut off.

Agriculture in the county, which is a top nationwide producer of many commodities, moves a $2.3 billion economy yearly, according to a 2018 study. Growers will have to find alternative sources of water and change the way they farm to keep that wheel spinning.

The immediate response is to pump groundwater, drill new wells, improve infrastructure and leave land unplanted where water is not available. The imperative is to find alternatives for reduced, efficient water use and a good plan to take care of desert aquifers in the region.

The situation is not as dire elsewhere on the river. In Yuma County, which has almost as many irrigated acres, growers lost none of their Colorado River water last year. They hold priority rights to the river's flow, while Pinal County farmers worked with some of the least-secure shares.

Drilling wells, building pipelines

It would be difficult to say no one saw this coming. The water cuts have been negotiated and planned for since at least 2007 and Pinal County farmers had been set to lose all CAP water by 2030. Yet irrigation districts and, above all, the growers, were not fully prepared for the sudden change.

About half of the roughly 200,000 acres of irrigated land in the county were left unplanted last year because there was no water to sustain the crops. Irrigation district managers said they expect the numbers will be similar this year.

“Not enough planning,” Ollerton said, “not enough people that were forward-thinking.”

The largest irrigation districts in Pinal County have been drilling new wells, rehabilitating old ones, building new pipelines for distribution, and buying CAP water from the private Arizona Water Company and Freeport-McMoRan mining company. Some irrigation districts have been lining canals with concrete to prevent water losses. Agricultural extension experts and farmers warn there will need to be a massive change in practices to avoid draining the aquifer.

Farmers who were not running on CAP water have also been hit hard by the drought.

Nancy Caywood’s family’s 225-acre farm, located east of Casa Grande in the San Carlos Irrigation District, was affected by water shortages years before Tier 1 cuts.

The irrigation district, which relies mainly on the San Carlos reservoir 68 miles northwest, shut off distribution to growers for the first time in 2017 because dam levels were getting low. A second cut came in April 2021 and another in May 2022.

Without water for months in a row, the Caywoods and other farmers lost whole crops, or missed their planting season entirely.

“You plant cotton in the spring, and you pick it in the fall. So if you don't have water for six months, you've lost the whole year,” Caywood said. “Once you get past your plant date, you're done.”

Her son started leasing land in a district that received CAP water so the family could plant corn for cattle feed to pay the bill for the farm in the San Carlos Irrigation District. Part of the agreement made when they bought the land was they would pay annually for a water assessment, a bill attached to their taxes. The fees come to about $19,000 a year, said Caywood. Then CAP water cuts came, and they couldn’t grow much on the leased land either.

The little they could grow on their own land fared poorly. While they usually get around eight to 10 cuts of alfalfa in a season, they only got two in the last year.

Central AZ farms rely on groundwater: How research aims to help farmers adapt, protect aquifers

Not enough infrastructure for equal groundwater deliveries

With virtually no Colorado River water to irrigate the crops, farmers in Pinal County have to depend on what they can get from the ground. Irrigation districts have been rehabilitating old wells and drilling new ones. But when it comes to distribution, not everyone gets the same for what they paid for because the infrastructure is different in every irrigation district.

“Luckily, sections of our farm have access to pump water, but other sections have access to none. Some areas we fallowed and where we had access to pump water we continued to farm,” said Will Thelander, a third-generation farmer with large operations in the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation District, located west of Interstate 10.

Thelander has been choosing where to plant his crops based on their proximity to nearby pumps. For some farmers, like those renting fewer acres or those whose land is too far away from wells, that strategy is out of reach. Of the roughly 80 farmers in the irrigation district, some receive nearly 4 acre-feet of water, while others get about 1.6.

Some relief is on its way. The Maricopa-Stanfield irrigation district is investing in new pipeline systems to ensure all farmers have water access, said manager Brian Yerges.

As in other irrigation districts, most of their existing wells are old and have a low productivity, so rehabilitation is not always an option. The Maricopa-Stanfield district has drilled nine new wells and has a tenth underway. The total water delivery to farmers last year was about 195,000 acre-feet of water, Yerges said, and about 85% was groundwater.

According to data from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, at least 15 new wells have been approved in the Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District since late 2020. Some have been built already. All of them are deeper than 1,000 feet and have an average pump rate of 1,900 gallons per minute (a household typically has a 6 gallon-per-minute demand). District officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Dirt canals in the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District represent big water losses for farmers. The roughly 60 miles of canal delivering reservoir water to customers were unlined until 2017. The irrigation district is close to completing the first 15 miles of concrete lining and expects to start work on 10 miles more, said district manager Shane Lindstrom. The latest building phase carried a cost of about $52 million. The irrigation district is also planning to drill three, maybe four, new wells and build an additional reservoir midway to better serve farmers in the Casa Grande area.

The well drilling and a couple of small infrastructure projects are being paid for with $13.8 million given to irrigation districts in the county to meet the expectations of the drought contingency plan. Both growers and the irrigation district estimate the cost for new wells could come up to about $50 million.

Yerges said no matter what, they will need more funding. The district is in ongoing litigation with the Ak-Chin Indian Community concerning water quality which could end with the district losing access to the Santa Rosa Canal, its biggest channel. Yerges said they are looking into options to build an alternative pipeline system if they were to lose the lawsuit.

Agriculture: In Pinal County, Colorado River shortage is forcing growers to plant fewer acres

Doing more with less water

Groundwater is needed to keep farmers on their feet, but water overdraft could dry up desert aquifers if there is no management to monitor use, experts warn. Changing irrigation technology is one of the steps farmers could take to reduce water use.

Most Pinal County farmers still use flood irrigation, typically diverting water through ditches across fields. Many laser-level their fields periodically, a practice that smooths the arable land, increases efficiency and reduces water use. Few have invested in drip irrigation or center pivot sprinkler systems.

Phillip Jacquez has seen an increased interest from growers in water conservation technologies due to the CAP cutbacks, an observation shared by other agricultural extension experts in the area.

Jacquez has been working between Chandler and Casa Grande for close to 35 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which provides technical and financial assistance to growers who want to build a conservation plan.

About 20 years back, with the help of a flagship program from NRCS, Paco Ollerton installed 200 acres of drip irrigation on land he leases. About 60,000 acres more within Pinal County are part of the same program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.

Paul Ollerton checks the moisture content of the cotton seed (bite test), Jan. 23, 2022, before harvesting the field east of Casa Grande.
Paul Ollerton checks the moisture content of the cotton seed (bite test), Jan. 23, 2022, before harvesting the field east of Casa Grande.

Ollerton said the drip system reduced his farm water use by 35% and increased his yield by the same. It also came with a reduction in input costs.

Ollerton said his own system would now likely cost him twice what he paid for back then. According to the NRCS, installing new drip irrigation can cost anywhere from $800 to $2,000 an acre.

The upfront costs of installation are only one barrier stopping Pinal County farmers from switching to drip irrigation.

For farmers who do not own the land they grow on, investing in new irrigation systems can be risky. One of the concerns is that the water to plant won’t be there in time for the planting season or won’t be enough to sustain the crop.

“They're starting to realize if they want to put in a center pivot or a drip irrigation system, it might need more of what we call an irrigation storage reservoir,” said Jacquez, with the NRCS Casa Grande office. And all of that adds costs.

Other obstacles are tied to infrastructure issues. In the San Carlos Irrigation District, the silt coming from unlined dirt canals would block the irrigation tapes and stop the system from working.

Farmers sticking to flood irrigation could make it more efficient if they install soil moisture sensors and monitor the flows of each field irrigated. Studies indicate flooding systems are not monitored are only 60% efficient, said Jacquez.

His office encourages the practice to farmers taking part in any conservation program, as water savings and crop performance can be maximized. Under some scenarios, and assuming the farmer meets the specifications, the agency can cover the full cost of the sensors installed.

Drip irrigation and center pivots technology have also gone through many changes. Gravity-fed drip irrigation from the Israeli-owned company N-Drip are being used in pilot systems throughout Arizona. Experiments have shown a reduction of up to 50% in water use with the systems and the upfront costs can total over two times lower than traditional drip irrigation systems.

Jacques said his office is constantly learning about the newest technology and how it can benefit customers. Because all programs are voluntary, the water users and managers need to stay on top of their game.

“We can only do so much, but our alternatives need to be scientifically based and sound and something that the producer is going to accept,” he said. After all, “it's for them, not for us.”

Waiting for the rain

Back in 2005, Paco Ollerton saw many growers around him selling their farms. Housing development and real estate were going into a frenzy, he recalled, and everyone had “a straw in the river.” There were fears that agriculture would be cut off from water from one day to the next and the shortage felt imminent. He ended up selling his own farm too.

“I just kind of figured that the Secretary of the Interior or the governor was going to say: ‘You know what, agriculture, you guys had enough. We're going to take the water for the citizens to be able to brush their teeth. Flush the toilet with,'" he said.

In his view, farmers are “eternal optimists.” They endure the unending uncertainties of climate, pests, market drops and the many other unpredictable hazards of the agriculture business. Ollerton eventually switched to leasing land and didn’t quit farming. His kids went into the agriculture business but were smart to stay out away from the fields, he said, and that’s OK.

Every year, farmers look into weather forecasts and snowpack levels, hoping there will be enough water in the system for the upcoming growing season.

Nancy Caywood stopped planting cotton because of the unreliable and small water deliveries but is now getting ready to level her fields for the spring season. The San Carlos Reservoir, which was recently dry and looking like a “mud puddle,” is one-third full again.

“You know, they're saying we may have enough water to plant the whole entire farm," she said. "Oh, we'll see.

“The dam now has about 380,000 acre-feet behind it, which will put us in business. But that doesn't mean the drought is over.”

Clara Migoya covers environment issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to clara.migoya@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: CAP water cuts increase disparities among Pinal County farmers