The furrows in a 60-acre patch of dirt on Rodney and Tiffany Shedd’s Arizona farm still hold cotton scraps from last year’s crop. This year, that patch will stay barren for the first time in recent memory, thanks to the decline in Colorado River water for farms across Pinal County, one of America’s cotton-growing centers. The farmers’ supply was cut because Arizona’s growing cities are taking more water than ever.
“We will fallow from here to the white tank,” said Rodney Shedd, driving past the barren field and pointing toward a water tower nearby.
And that’s just the start of water-slashing, due to drought, climate change and a proposed state plan to prop up the over-allocated Colorado River and its shrinking reservoir. Lake Mead has supplied the Shedds’ farm for decades through the $4 billion Central Arizona Project, or CAP.
Starting next year, deeper cuts to CAP supplies are expected, and despite receiving subsidies for wells to replace that lost water, 200 Pinal farmers will have to fallow up to 40 percent of their lands by 2026. The cuts to cities and tribes won’t be nearly as big—certainly not enough to slow the development that has returned Arizona to a spot among the nation’s fastest-growing states.
“We didn’t see this issue coming until it was here,” Shedd said. He quickly corrected himself, noting that the irrigation district to which he belongs had started leaving a small portion of its river water in Lake Mead a few years ago to delay the day of reckoning. Still, the reality of the larger cuts is just starting to sink in.
Only the timing should come as a surprise. Statewide, farmers use 70 percent of Arizona’s water, but have long held the lowest legal priority for river water. Under a 2004 settlement, they agreed to give up all their CAP water by 2030, in exchange for cheap rates to buy it. But hotter, drier weather, stoked by climate change, dropped Mead’s level much faster than experts had predicted.
The drought plan, approved in January by the Arizona Legislature, reduces Arizona’s total CAP take by one-third in 2020 and by nearly half by 2026, in hope of delaying the day when Lake Mead’s water levels drop so low that Arizona cannot use it. Before it takes effect, however, the state and water users must approve a set of legal agreements by a March deadline set by US Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.
Arizona’s water negotiations have been painful for most involved. The Gila River Indian Community, for example, has a right to the state’s biggest share of CAP supplies and would have had to take a large cut. The tribe would have received $92 million from the state and feds in compensation—far less than the tribe’s attorney, Jason Hauter, says the water is worth. The tribe, however, threw a wrench into the drought plan when it announced recently that it would not sign its part of the plan, because State House Speaker Rusty Bowers had been pushing legislation that the tribe believes undermines its water-rights claims to the Gila River in eastern Arizona. Tribal officials said they still won’t sign onto the drought plan without getting assurances that the bill will never be revived.
Arizona’s metropolitan areas have emerged as the clear winners in the negotiations. Cities in Phoenix’s mushrooming Maricopa County—the fastest-growing in the US—will receive higher priority.
Meanwhile, the Shedds’ 500-acre farm sprawls within view of alternating patches of mesquite flats, now temporarily green due to El Niño-fueled heavy winter rains, while the cotton and wheat fields remain barren until spring planting begins.