As Colorado River Shortage Looms, Arizona Water Managers Look Elsewhere

By Will Stone
Published: Thursday, May 28, 2015 - 12:08pm
Updated: Thursday, May 28, 2015 - 2:48pm
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(Photo by Will Stone - KJZZ News)
Brian Betcher is one of the water managers in central Arizona preparing for a possible shortage on the Colorado River.
(Photo by Will Stone - KJZZ News)
The Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation & Drainage District supplies water to growers in Pinal County.

By 2017, chances are a water shortage will be declared on the Colorado River. If that happens, Arizona will lose a share of its water — more than any of its neighbors.

Farmers will feel the squeeze first and that is forcing some tough decisions about how to keep agriculture viable as the drought deepens.

Brian Betcher is one of the people on the front lines of drought preparation.  On a windswept afternoon in late spring, he cruised a labyrinth of waterways, lined with ripening melons and corn.

“This is kind of the southern end of the district. See we’re up close to the foothills. We're kind of near the edge of where water is below ground,” said Betcher. 

Betcher has been spending a lot more time recently concerned about that very issue. He manages the more than 200 miles of canals and pipelines that make up the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District.

At the edge of the canal, Betcher stops at a recently installed pipe spouting water.

“The challenge we are looking at as we get to 2017 is that we need to maximize our ability to get this groundwater into our canal system," said Betcher.

In 2017, Arizona will face a 75-percent chance of its first cutback in Colorado River water, depending on the water level in Lake Mead. Central Arizona farmers will be among the first to take that hit.

In recent years, 50 to 70 percent of the water flowing into this irrigation district has come from the Colorado.

Betcher expects that to drop to only 20 percent after a tier-one shortage on the Colorado. They will use groundwater to make up as much of the difference as possible, which is what farmers relied on before the Central Arizona Project piped in water from the river. 

“We’re dealing with old infrastructure we’re trying to bring back on line. We are cautiously optimistic we’ll be successful, but there’s no guarantee because these wells have been sitting here a long time not used,” said Betcher.

This uncertainty — coupled with the loss in overall water — will force growers to adjust. After all, groundwater is more expensive.

“In central Arizona, CAP water has been the way we irrigate our crops, so that all changes,” said Joe Sigg with the Arizona Farm Bureau.

Sigg said growers are in the midst of some key calculations: Which crops can be grown with less water? Will fields have to be fallowed?  What if equipment breaks?  Will banks still offer the same loans?

“Historically, margins on agriculture crops are 3 percent or less. Oftentimes, we are dealing with margins of 1 percent or less, so a little change in expense can cause a margin that, let’s say, is marginally profitable to one that might be negligibly profitable," said Sigg.

Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, said economics will be the biggest factor for growers, if a cutback in CAP water occurs.

“We are in the middle of, not a welcome experiment, but an experiment that will tell us what kind of decisions the farmers will make over time,” she said.

Shortage or not, agriculture was already set to lose its share of the Colorado River by 2030 — the assumption being urbanization would drive that. This drought may just accelerate the transition. In the short term, though, Megdal believes many farmers will return to groundwater. For how long, it is hard to say.

“Now, the good news is that groundwater levels in that region have gone up because people have been using that surface water," said Megdal. "But over time, if groundwater [use] continues, we will see a decline of water in storage and that will be a concern potentially for future water supplies.”

Back in Maricopa, Brian Betcher shares that concern. In the 1950s and 1960s, reliance on groundwater depleted the aquifers, eventually prompting legislative action in the form of the Groundwater Management Act, which regulates groundwater pumping.

“There’s going to be some tough decisions the landowners will have to make," said Betcher. "Just because we can pump 200,000 acre feet a year, do we want to do that in the long term because of what that will do your resources below ground?”

That will be a question that many Arizona water managers and farmers will face, if the drought continues. 

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