Q&AZ: Why is there an I-10 checkpoint when entering California but not Arizona?

By Christina Van Otterloo
Published: Wednesday, December 14, 2022 - 4:45am
Updated: Wednesday, December 14, 2022 - 10:06am

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interstate 10 checkpoint
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
The checkpoint sitting on the California-Arizona border of the I-10 is Blythe Border Station, run by California's Department of Food and Agriculture.

When you’re cruising along Interstate 10 and heading into California, you’ll pass through a small structure that sits along the Arizona-California border. Someone in uniform will either wave you through or pose a few questions about what you’re bringing into the state before letting you pass. But upon returning to Arizona, no stop is required.

Through KJZZ's Q&AZ project, one listener asked, “Why isn’t there a checkpoint when you drive back to Arizona? What are the checkpoints checking for, and why doesn’t Arizona care what’s coming from California?”

It turns out, that checkpoint sitting on the I-10 is actually the Blythe Border Station, run by California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, known as CDFA.

California has a total of 16 border stations scattered across the state’s borders with Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. According to the CDFA’s website, the stations are the "first line of defense" against pests and invasive species.

Arizona doesn’t have any interstate checkpoints of its own — but it used to. And Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Food and Agriculture, says getting rid of them was a mistake.

The history of Arizona’s checkpoints

an arizona inspection station in 1953
An Arizona inspection station in 1953.

In 1921, the ancestor of the Department of Food and Agriculture, the Arizona Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture, started its first inspections of incoming motor traffic at Tempe Bridge. In 1922, inspections spread to Bowie, Duncan, Apache, Lees Ferry and Ehrenberg. By the mid-1980s, Arizona boasted 14 inspection stations around the state.

mark killian
Arizona Department of Food and Agriculture
Mark Killian

But in 2008, budget cuts and complaints of inconvenience shuttered the stations, leaving the only remaining inspection operations in Phoenix, Yuma and Tucson.

"In my opinion, it was a very big mistake," Killian said. "Because those checkpoints were good at stopping invasive pests from getting in our state, particularly like the fire ant and other kinds of bugs and problems. And it also kept people from bringing infected livestock into our state. So when the Legislature repealed that, and they did away with that … we're now left with trying to catch up with the shipment of goods and animals and livestock within the interior of our state after they've already arrived. And that creates some serious problems for the state of Arizona."

Arizona’s agriculture industry generates around $23 billion a year; in 2021, it received a budget just short of $33 million for all operations, including a designated $23,200 toward combating the red imported fire ant, an invasive species destructive to crops.

But according to one of Arizona’s neighbors, that industry is part of Killian’s woes.

California's bulky investment

"We really tried to be smart about collecting the right data — being able to put that into a way that the legislators can then evaluate this is the right place to make an investment doesn't always work in really dire times. And I've been there, and I have great empathy for Director Killian, because he cares so much about ag and protecting agriculture," said Karen Ross, secretary of California’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

karen ross
California Department of Food and Agriculture
Karen Ross

She grew up farming in western Nebraska but has been involved in California’s agricultural scene since the late 1980s and has her current position since 2011.

While cash receipts show Arizona’s farms raked in almost $4 billion in 2021, California’s receipts rang in over $51 billion. It’s not that Arizona is doing poorly — it ranks 31 out of 50 state — California just leads the nation in agricultural revenue, with second-place Iowa bringing in $34 billion.

Ross said that state’s agricultural revenue, its size and its environmentally-friendly policies are a few factors that contribute to its bulky investment in prevention measures like the checkpoints. Plus, its coastal location makes it a gateway for plenty of cargo that’s destined for other states.

"We're kind of like the national defense for some of these pests moving to other places," Ross said.

California’s intense scrutiny of outside produce and livestock is embodied by its checkpoints, but it does have preventative plans in place in case pests get through.

"Right now, we've already got an action plan in place for a bug that was introduced into the East Coast, the Northeast in Pennsylvania, the spotted lantern fly, which could cause huge damage to crops and to natural resources. That one happened to get into the Northeast. And so that's one that we're watching very closely with cargo or moving vans that might be coming from that part," Ross said. "Unfortunately, it attaches itself to things like railroad cars and everything else. But we know the borders we need to monitor. So it's kind of an exchange that way."

This degree of thoroughness is lost in Arizona.

Arizona then and now

an inspection station flyer from the 80s
An inspection station flyer from the 1980s detailing info about the stations and their goals.

A report from 2008, the year of the budget cuts, details the state’s former thoughts on its process: "It is desirable to promote food defense programs. However, [Arizona Department of Agriculture] staff feel that food producers under its regulatory authority have generally done a good job in promoting food defense."

The report then indicates that budget constraints and authority issues have curtailed any expansion of such programs.

Today, Killian commends the department’s work, but notes the need for improvements and the struggle he faces with policy makers.

"We've done a fairly good job of catching stuff after it gets here," Killian said. "And the Legislature, you know, has been tied up with issues on education, taxation, water — there's all kinds of issues that they deal with — this issue just really hasn't floated to the top. And the reason it hasn't is because our agency has been extremely effective in stopping these pests."

But policy makers aren’t the only folks Killian needs to sway.

"Part of the challenge we face is most urban people are very unfamiliar with agriculture. And so as a result of that, there's very little sympathy about reinstating the checkpoints, because they don't understand the impact that could have on agriculture. For them, agriculture is going to the grocery store and picking one of 40 or 50 or 60,000 products that are in the grocery store. They don't think beyond that, or how that crop is on there, where it's grown and the impact it may have on the community," Killian said. "And so that's a challenge we have in the agriculture community is convincing the urban masses that a few dollars invested in things like the checkpoint and other things that we do helps not only to protect the viability of the agriculture economy, but also the viability of producing food, and also protects their homes and the plants and fauna they have around their homes."

Killian recounted a recent issue where thousands of sheep without health papers arrived in Yuma, which created a huge health problem. The practice, he noted, had been going on for years. But without checkpoints, the state was unaware until someone reported it.

This practice of playing catch up frustrates Killian, who also must contend with the department’s shortage of staff. In 2006, the Plant Services Division, which oversees inspections, had 91 employees. As of June 2022, it was down to 42.

And down in Yuma, farmer John Boelts echoes his concerns.

john boelts
John Boelts
John Boelts

The complexities plaguing policy

Boelts is co-owner of Desert Premium Farms, which spans over 2,000 acres growing fruit and vegetables all year round. Farming is a way of life in his family, with his grandfather, father and brother all being or having been farmers. In addition to farming, Boelts serves as the vice president of the Arizona Farm Bureau.

From his position, he sees the complexities plaguing policy.

"I think that the best way to characterize it is it's a tug of war between fiscal responsibility and spending and industry protection," Boelts said. "It's the tug of war of that realm of understanding of our natural world and our commercial activities and private activities balanced against how much money can government spend. We don't have an infinite supply of money to spend. And so I think Arizona has been more leaning towards the fiscal conservative side a little too much, and has put a number of things at risk that are in that category of, ‘You don't know what you got until it's gone.’"

Boelts detailed the risk of the current policies with a bug that troubled Yuma’s citrus industry, the Asian citrus psyllid.

an adult asian citrus psyllid on a citrus leaf
David Hall/USDA
An adult Asian citrus psyllid on a citrus leaf.

"Finding the psyllid here in Yuma presented some unique thing. It meant that the then movement of citrus-produced citrus stock, nursery stock of citrus type, or related type plants couldn't move about, so it tremendously impacted some friends of mine that have a citrus nursery here in Yuma County," Boelts said.

A troublesome point was that the bug had been detected for decades in Southern California and northern Mexico, but both areas denied having it. So when it was detected in Arizona, "the gauntlet got thrown down," as Boelts said, hampering the shipping of citrus products in the state.

Boelts traced this issue back to the checkpoints and policy. He acknowledged that Arizona has the option of temporarily operating inspection stations, but that the agency doesn’t have the funding to do so. And even with those, he noted that state inspectors are key in detecting what’s already here.

"The folks that do those inspections of food and agriculture goods and just general goods coming in and out are really our failsafe. And they are for our states, too," Boelts said. "With the advent of trucking interstate, and trucks asking not to be stopped at those checkpoints, and states struggling to have enough money to operate checkpoints like that, and train folks and operate those checkpoints, agricultural stations — it really, for many states, has fallen by the wayside. And it really is dependent upon how robust agriculture is in that state and how real threats are. And if those checkpoints are absolutely necessary, I would argue that, for the last 20 years, they've been absolutely necessary for agriculture, and that they should have been operated at the borders of Arizona. No guarantee that they would have caught everything, but they certainly have the potential.”

Climate and administration

The word potential sums up the debate on reinstating checkpoints. There’s room for improvement, but as Killian stated, the lack of funding and understanding from both policy makers and the public, combined with the success of Department of Agriculture in reactive measures, has left things at a standstill.

But two uncertain aspects might push the debate: climate and administration.

Ross said climate change is seeing changes in the introduction of invasive pests, and pest seasons are now lasting longer.

"It's a really important time to understand what the real risk pathways are," Ross said.

And Killian hopes a new administration will also push talks.

"I'm hopeful that maybe next year that this is one of the issues that the new governor can talk about and try and tackle. We'll have a whole new legislature, a whole new governor … And I think we'll have a chance to have that discussion and see if the policy makers want to advance going back to the port of entries or if they could give us some more inspectors in our Plant Services Division. Maybe we don't have to have ports. If we have a few more inspectors, maybe we could stay ahead of the problem."

cars approach the checkpoint on interstate 10
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Cars approach the inspection station on the California-Arizona border on Interstate 10.

As for now, Killian is cognizant of the worst case scenarios if things stay on this path. Threats like tuberculosis, avian flu, hoof and mouth disease, citrus greening disease, the Japanese beetle — the list goes on — all could devastate Arizona’s agriculture, and thus, hurt the economy.

And Killian is very aware of how these threats wouldn’t only hurt farmers but consumers as well.

"When I say we touch the average Arizonan every day, we do. If you go to the store every day, I'm standing right there next to you. If you're pumping gas every day, oh my gosh, there's Mark, he's standing there right next to you, OK? If you buy a bag of potatoes, apples, produce, I'm standing there. If you're spraying bugs in your backyard, the guys, they're spraying bugs, I'm standing right next to him. So we do a lot of things that protect the consumer in Arizona and we have wonderful people that work here and they do a great job. And you know, as the state grows, the demands on the department will continue to increase, which is a good thing. And we just hope that we can get the resources we need to stay abreast of the population increase."

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