As Water Sources Dry Up, Arizona Farmers Feel the Heat of Climate Change

Farms in central Arizona will soon lose access to Colorado River water, impacting farmers, cities, and Native communities.



This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Covering Climate Now logoFall is a busy time for Knorr Farms, a family operation that grows peppers, corn, cotton, and other crops on 3,000 acres in Pinal County, one of Arizona’s top growing regions.

Owner Rob Knorr is preparing for a big October pepper harvest and mapping out plans for the next planting season—what to grow, where, and how. Water, as always, is the linchpin. Like other farmers in this parched county, which stretches for more than 5,300 square miles across the Sonoran Desert, Knorr depends entirely on irrigation water from the Colorado River. He receives it from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal system that Knorr calls the “lifeline to Arizona agriculture.”

Knorr Farms owner Rob Knorr holding irrigation piping. (Photo courtesy of Knorr Farms)

Knorr Farms owner Rob Knorr holding irrigation piping. (Photo © Meg Wilcox)

But this year, Knorr’s lifeline is slipping away. A landmark agreement reached this spring between three of the states that share the lower basin of the Colorado River (Arizona, California, and Nevada) calls for deep cuts in river water allotments through 2026. The Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) aims to prevent the already dangerously low water levels in Lake Mead—the beating heart of the Colorado River delivery system—from dropping further. Arizona, with the most-junior water rights, is absorbing the bulk of the cuts, and Pinal County farmers like Knorr will be among the first to feel the pain of shortages.

The DCP “not only impacts the crops that we grow, it impacts the number of acres,” said Steve Todd, an advisor to Knorr Farms. “There will be acres left fallow,” in the years ahead.

That may be an understatement. Water experts estimate that up to 40 percent of non-Native land in Pinal County will eventually be fallowed as Arizona embraces the drier future that climate change will bring. And that future is coming soon: As of 2022, farmers in Pinal County—ranked in the top 2 percent of all U.S. counties for agricultural sales with $908 million in annual, on-farm direct sales—will lose their guaranteed access to CAP water, and will have to turn to more limited groundwater supplies.

As climate change forces the Southwest to face new rainfall and temperature baselines, agriculture is in the crosshairs. Farming uses, on average, 80 percent of ground and surface water supplies in the U.S., and rapid population growth, over-allocation of a finite resource, and a rapidly changing climate are leaning heavily on those supplies.

Nowhere is this more evident than the Colorado River system, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states and two states in Mexico. While it’s still too early to see the DCP’s impact on Arizona farmers, the state’s approach to helping farmers adapt, stepping up water conservation, and spreading the pain—all while honoring Native communities’ senior water rights—could offer a useful example for other arid regions.

A map of the upper and lower Colorado River Basin.

A map of the upper and lower Colorado River Basin.

“The past 20 years of drought have taught us that there is risk in the system,” said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River Programs Manager at CAP. “We have to pivot to a mindset where we all have to make contributions. We need to manage our destiny together.”

The Epicenter: Pinal County

Arizona is the nation’s second-largest producer of lettuce, broccoli, and cantaloupe. Its warm climate allows for year-round vegetable production, and earned it recognition as the U.S. winter lettuce capital. Arizona is also a big producer of dairy and cattle, which are important to the state economy.

Pinal County is the state’s powerhouse for dairy and beef, producing 45 percent of Arizona’s cattle and calf sales and 39 percent of its milk. Cotton, hay, corn, and barley are also important crops. Farmers in the county (and neighboring Maricopa and Pima counties as well) are at the epicenter for CAP water cutbacks because they’re among the lowest-priority users of CAP water.

As Cullom explained, western water law follows the “prior appropriation doctrine,” which essentially means, “first in time, first in right.”

Though non-Native farming dates back 150 years in Central Arizona, farmers in Pinal didn’t tap into the Colorado River until the 1980s, when the CAP canal system was built. Initially Pinal farmers used groundwater resources and surface water from Arizona’s Salt, Verde and Gila rivers. Todd’s grandfather, in fact, was among a group of farmers who convinced the federal government in the early 1900s to loan them money to build a dam on Arizona’s Salt River to store irrigation water. That initial dam led to the creation of the Salt River Project, which today provides electricity and surface water to the region.

In the past half century, competition increased for Arizona’s water supplies. Metropolitan Phoenix’s population boom—from barely 100,000 in 1950 to more than 4.5 million today—has resulted in less water for farmers. And as farmers retired, urban expansion gobbled up the land, which essentially transferred the water rights to municipalities, according to Todd.

Farmworkers in the Knorr Farms fields. (Photo courtesy of Knorr Farms)

Farmworkers in the Knorr Farms fields. (Photo © Meg Wilcox)

By the 1960s, over-pumping groundwater by farmers led the state to cut a deal: It would provide farmers access to Colorado River water if they would relinquish their rights to groundwater. The resulting CAP system became fully operational in the 1980s.

CAP delivers 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to 50 cities and towns, 10 Native tribes, and 17 irrigation districts. Another annual tranche of 1.2 million acre-feet of Colorado River water is delivered largely to farmers in Yuma County and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, who hold higher priority rights, according to Jim Holway, director of the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy. All told, the Colorado River provides about one-third of Arizona’s water.

To pay for the CAP system that delivers water to their irrigation districts, farmers took out loans, Cullom explained. When they had trouble repaying those loans, their debt was forgiven in 2004—in exchange, the farmers accepted the lowest priority to CAP water, with a commitment to receive Colorado River water through 2030. Climate change and overuse have simply accelerated that timetable: Under the DCP, Central Arizona agriculture is facing immediate cutbacks, and an end to their guarantee of CAP water supplies as of 2022.

In 2020, farmers will take a 15 percent water cut, according to Cullom. Water-sharing agreements with higher-priority users, such the city of Tucson, will make up for farmers’ shortfalls through 2022. Such agreements allow cities to store, or bank, excess water in groundwater aquifers, which provides a credit for water districts serving farmers.

“We all recognized the benefit of the ag economy to the communities we serve, and found a way to provide a bridge of water supply to help them to transition in central Arizona,” said Cullom.

Farmers are expected to transition to groundwater over the next three years, and the state is providing $30 million to help them do that, while seeking to leverage additional funds through the farm bill. Groundwater supplies are more limited for a number of reasons, according to Holway. The aquifer is already overdrawn; water quality may be poor, or pumping uneconomical, in some areas; and farmers who’ve redesigned their irrigation systems for CAP’s higher water flows may have trouble using groundwater. “It’s akin to a trickle of water as opposed to a torrent of water coming in,” he said of the difference between well water and CAP water.

Given farmers’ three-year cushion to transition to groundwater, Todd says, “We don’t see any real curtailment in our acres in the 2020 crop year at Knorr Farms.” But he added that, knowing that water cuts are just around the corner, Knorr is spending a lot of time trying to convince landlords to cut him slack on the rent when he does turn to land fallowing.

Ripples of Impact from Fallowing Land

The impact of fallowing land in Pinal County could result in more than $200 million in lost agricultural revenues, and job losses up to 6 percent of the workforce, according to a study by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension that did not factor in mitigating measures, like switching to groundwater, because of the uncertainty of supplies.

Study author George Frisvold said that, while neither consumers nor commodity markets were likely to feel a price impact, the job losses were significant, and not just for farm laborers, but for people in industries that support agriculture. “There are ripples across the whole local economy that are bigger than just the direct effect on farmers,” Frisvold said.

“If I’m selling seed, or machinery or fertilizers to those farms and they fallow their acres, I’m losing out on those sales,” he continued. Similarly, if a farmer fallowing land could no longer, say, afford to buy a new truck, that could hurt the local truck dealership.

Frisvold further noted that recovery can be hard in rural economies. “Economists historically assumed that in rural areas when people lost their jobs, they just went on and did something else, but there’s more and more evidence that the effect of these job losses, if they hit one place all at once, it’s harder than economists had appreciated 10 or 20 years ago.”

There are also questions of what becomes of fallowed land. Dust storms are already an issue in central Arizona, says Holway. What will happen when the land is no longer irrigated? California’s Public Policy Institute has examined this issue for the San Joaquin Valley, which is similarly facing imminent land fallowing with the implementation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Proposals for alternative land uses in California may not apply to Arizona, however, according to Chris Kuzdas, the Arizona-based Water Program manager at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Drilling alone won’t solve farmers problems because groundwater supplies are expected to be more limited, and Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act, a response to over-pumping in the 1960s, sets a “water duty,” or limit on how much groundwater farmers can use.

Irrigation on Ak-Chin farmlands. (Photo courtesy of the Ak-Chin Indian Community)

Irrigation on Ak-Chin farmlands. (Photo courtesy of the Ak-Chin Indian Community)

Many groundwater wells have been idled since the 1980s and will require substantial refurbishing and investment to become operational again. In addition to all that work, there are energy costs to lift water 300 to 400 feet to the surface, says Todd, ballparking the additional expense of groundwater at about $20 more per acre-foot. Water quality concerns, like higher salinity, can also impact crop yields.

Eking out more irrigation efficiencies is only a partial answer as well. “The farms in Pinal Country are already really efficient as to how they deliver water,” said Kuzdas.

Knorr Farms, for example, uses drip irrigation on most fields. State-wide, increased irrigation efficiency has helped reduce agriculture’s share of the water pie to 68 percent, far below the U.S. average of 80 percent.

Finding alternative crops with higher margins that allow less ground to be irrigated can also be a challenge, explained Brian Betcher, general manager for the Maricopa-Stanfield irrigation district that serves Pinal.

EDF has been working with farmers in Pinal County to conserve water, including by bringing high-value, water-efficient crops like guayule, a rubber alternative, to market. Kuzdas said that EDF will soon announce a partnership that it helped to broker between a farmer and a large buyer. “We need to continue ramping up collaboration and creativity to find ways that all sectors can use less water,” he added.

It’s too early for Todd to say what crops Knorr Farms might shift to as water supplies tighten. But, he says, “we would think long and hard about [whether to grow] cotton. It takes more water, more time to grow and it takes longer to get your cash back.” Cotton is a thirsty crop that requires six times more water to grow than lettuce, but federal subsidies have made it lucrative to grow in Arizona.

Native American Communities Emerge as Water Brokers

One group of Central Arizonan farmers who aren’t yet facing water cuts are the Ak-Chin and Gila River communities. The tribes share higher-priority CAP supplies with the cities and they also received water settlements from the federal government, in 1984 and 2004, respectively, locking in their senior water rights.

Returning to their traditional O’odham farming roots, both communities have been building large agricultural enterprises and conserving water by installing more efficient irrigation systems and restoring lost riparian habitats.

The Ak-Chin community in Pinal County, for example, grows potatoes, pecans, corn, sorghum, wheat, cotton, alfalfa, and barley on 16,000 acres of its 20,000-acre reservation. It sells potatoes to Frito-Lay and In-N-Out Burger in the state.

“Tribal well-being has always been linked to farming and agriculture, the traditional lifestyles of our people,” said Ak-Chin chairman Robert Miguel. “Historically our ancestors maintained seasonal camps based on the harvest schedule for cholla buds, prickly pear, saguaro, squash.”

Ak-Chin Chairman Robert Miguel surveys flooding after monsoon rains. (Photo courtesy of the Ak-Chin Indian Community)

Ak-Chin Chairman Robert Miguel surveys flooding after monsoon rains. (Photo courtesy of the Ak-Chin Indian Community)

Farming is now a primary source of income for the Ak-Chin, and half of that income is invested in community housing, education, and elder assistance.

“All we ever asked for was water to survive,” said Miguel. “We want everyone to know that we were given so little and we’ve done so much with that. To be able to produce crops that would benefit the whole U.S. and world has given us a sense of pride.”

Initial DCP proposals in Arizona would have protected non-Native farmers, and risked potential shortages for tribes and other high-priority users, but that created a ruckus, according to Holway. Contentious negotiations dragged on for two years, and led Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community to make an impassioned plea at a stakeholder meeting in fall 2018.

“We see ourselves as a moral compass in regards to water,” he said, “because out of all the groups here, the indigenous people were the only ones who had water taken away from them. We have stories, oral history of the devastation that brought to our people. Some of the social, medical, historical trauma is still with us today.”

Learning from history’s past mistakes, the state honored tribal water rights. That made the Gila River Indian Community, with its sizable federal water settlement of 653,500 acre-feet, a powerful water broker in the state.

“The Gila River community came forward as a major water leader in the state, their leadership with the Colorado River Indians was critical in getting the drought contingency plan across the finish line in Arizona,” said EDF’s Kuzdas. Both nations have agreed to either lease some of their excess water and sell water credits to towns and water districts, or leave a sizable portion of their water allotment in Lake Mead over the next three years, in exchange for water payments or credits for future use.

Meanwhile Knorr Farms is preparing for a drier future. Recalling how central Arizona has changed so dramatically since his boyhood, Todd wonders: “Where is this going to go? If it’s changed that much in my lifetime, what does it look like in one more lifetime? It’s all changing, but isn’t that what life is—change and adaptation?”

Top photo: A farmer adjusts siphon tubes on furrow irrigated lettuce near Phoenix, Arizona. (NRCS photo by Tim McCabe) 

Update: This article was updated to correct the location of the Ak-Chin community; it is in Pinal County, not Maricopa County.

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  1. Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
    It's highly complicated, but it looks as if the Native tribes should be the major agricultural producers and the non-Native farms do the best the land will allow with significantly less water. Would smaller farms with tunnels to reduce evaporation help? Low water-using crops are being explored and that should be a serious study. Are any findings in, say, the Sahel, which is really arid, relevant? Business as before is clearly over. Are solar panel farms a feasible replacement for crops?