BUCKEYE — Today, anyone can drive around the corners of the Valley and find farmland still in use. This is especially true in the Southwest Valley, near Buckeye, Goodyear and communities along the Gila River.
How much longer there will continue to be farming in the Valley is unclear considering how much scrutiny is being placed on water use with the Colorado River’s storage levels — from which Arizona draws a large portion of farmland irrigation — at the most visibly low level in recorded history.
What is clear is changes to the amount of Colorado River water moved into central Arizona won’t impact all farming right away, considering how dependent Valley faming is on groundwater.
In fact, the purchase power of land owners and developers that want to make money by building homes or commercial development are putting far more farmland out of use in the Valley than any change in water policy, legal disputes or actual supply.
Donovan Neese, superintendent of the Roosevelt Irrigation District that delivers water in the Southwest Valley, said while his district customers primarily use groundwater supplies, the “grid” of water under the Valley is a mix of naturally occurring and replenished groundwater, with credits and purchases leading to water being moved in many directions at all times.
The Roosevelt Irrigation District owns and operates the RID Main Canal, also known as the RID CC-1 Canal, RID CC-2 Canal and Salt Canal. These man-made routes deliver irrigation water to about 38,000 acres of land in the Avondale, Goodyear and Buckeye areas.
About 26,000 of those acres are in agricultural production, though the Southwest Valley is rapidly urbanizing as land owners choose development over farming. Nearly all of RID’s deliveries in 2022 are to agriculture.
“Every little bit helps,” Neese said, referring to the small fraction of Roosevelt Irrigation District water that originally came from the Central Arizona Project’s Colorado River canal by some means. “What’s of greater concern to us, as an irrigation district, is the cost in dollars to move water over great distances, and to pump it out of the ground, so the availability and cost of electricity.”
Neese points out Hoover Dam, where the level of Lake Meade has been visibly and technically dropping for decades, is one of the major electricity sources for Southwest U.S. residents. As drought in the Southwest has dragged on, electricity production at Hoover Dam has slowed.
A U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official said in May the dam is down about 33% on power production and was only serving about 675,000 homes at that point, Not only is that a huge decrease from the five-years-past average, the bureau says, but it;s also considerably less than the 1.3 million homes the dam could serve if it were operating at full capacity.
“That impacts farms, as almost all moving of water requires power,” Neese said. “And that drives up the overall cost of farming.”
Farmers in the Southwest Valley adjust for ongoing changes to commodity prices. However, what’s grown there most commonly are alfalfa, cotton, wheat and forage crops for dairy cattle, Neese said.
There are so many groundwater well pumps and groups of pumps in the Southwest Valley, it’s easy to tell when one area is going dry, Neese said. Pumps are monitored in various ways and can be turned on or off based on demand, it’s easy to see which pumps are pulling the most water, and which ones might be having trouble.
“I report to the RID board if I find any kind of trouble,” Neese said. “We want maximum efficiency out of every pump.”
He said RID’s demand has been flat for the 100 years the district has been around. In an average year, he said, the district moves about 130,000 acre-feet of water.
When it comes to estimating how much groundwater is available over a larger area — for example, the entire state of Arizona, as far as 1,000 feet in depth — Neese said he leaves that up to geologists.
“That’s for people who are way smarter than I am,” he said, laughing. “We just try to provide the best service for our customers — who can, within reason, order as much water from us as they want.”
While RID staff see farmers trying to improve efficiencies or listen to their fears and concerns about the future, most of what each farmer can use is between them and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Neese said. The amount of water RID delivers to each customer simply has to match what each customer self-reports in usage to ADWR.
Many of the best conservation methods are already in place, though there are few new things that use storm runoff in a new way (where evaporation occurred before) that are still introduced from time to time, Neese said.
“There is almost always a way to capture a little bit more ‘new water’ that was lost before,” he said.
Adjustments farmers may make
Many long-time farming operations use groundwater based on rights grandfathered into state law. Doug MacEachern, spokesman for Arizona Department of Water Resources, said irrigation grandfathered right grants the right to irrigate specific plots of land that had been irrigated with groundwater between 1975 and 1980.
Land without an irrigation grandfathered right may not be irrigated with groundwater.
Under the code, “irrigate” means to apply water to 2 or more acres to produce plants for sale or human consumption or as feed for livestock.
“An irrigation grandfathered right specifies how much groundwater may be used,” MacEachern said. “That amount will vary over time, according to a formula established in the management plans.”
A grandfathered right may not be sold apart from the associated land. A Type 1 right is associated with land permanently retired from farming and converted to a non-irrigation use, i.e. building a new industrial plant or a subdivision.
This right, like an irrigation grandfathered right, stays with the land, rather than with a landowner. This means rights stay with the owner of an approved subdivision or commercial/industrial project, or whomever owns a given parcel of land, and don’t follow the farmer or farming group that might own other agricultural properties.
The maximum amount of groundwater that may be pumped each year using a Type 1 right is 3 acre-feet per acre. Groundwater withdrawn under a Type 2 right can only be used for a non-irrigation purpose.
The right is based on historical groundwater pumping for a non-irrigation use and equals the maximum amount pumped in any one year between 1975 and 1980. Examples of non-irrigation uses include industry, livestock watering and golf courses.
“Type 2 rights are the most flexible because they may be sold separately from the land or well,” MacEachern said. “In addition, the owner of a Type 2 right may, with ADWR approval, withdraw groundwater from a new location within the same management area. It is possible to lease a portion of a Type 2 right, but if the right is sold, it may not be divided; instead, the entire right must be sold.”
Many Valley cities have formally agreed to a list of restrictions referred to as Tier 1. MacEachern said largely because of Tier 1-required cutbacks in Colorado River deliveries, central and south-central Arizona farmers have substantially reduced agricultural production, reportedly, in many cases, by 30% or more.
“Tier 2A cutbacks are scheduled to further reduce deliveries to Central Arizona Project customers in 2023, including ag customers,” MacEachern said. “Tier 2A requires that Arizona’s Colorado River supplies be reduced by 592,000 acre-feet, or 80 acre-feet more than in 2022. This will further impact ag production.”
Also, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June, acknowledging that challenges facing the Colorado River system are unlike anything observers have seen throughout U.S. history.
Touton said that in addition to the actions already under way, an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of conservation is needed in 2023 just to protect the critical levels in the major reservoirs, allowing for power generation and infrastructure stability. This is in addition to the Drought Contingency Plan cuts.