This Casa Grande farmer almost gave up after water cuts. Here's how she's looking toward the future

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, December 14, 2023 - 12:16pm
Updated: Saturday, December 16, 2023 - 9:11am

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haron Megdal (left) and Nancy Caywood
Nate Boyle/KJZZ
Sharon Megdal (left) and Nancy Caywood in KJZZ's studio.

The Colorado River Water Users Association is meeting this week in Las Vegas, and among the items on the agenda is continuing to try to figure out ways to use less of the overallocated river. In Arizona, one of the biggest users is agriculture; farmers have also been among the first to see cuts to the amount of water they get from the river.

The industry is a big one in the state, and is looking for ways to use less water, while continuing to grow crops and earn a living.

The Show spoke with Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, and Nancy Caywood, a farmer with Caywood Farms in Casa Grande, about this issue. 

'If you see drone shots of our farm, everything's just dried up'

SHARON MEGDAL: So agriculture is the largest user of water worldwide. And in the United States in agricultural areas, the state of Arizona, according to Arizona Department of Water Resources numbers, agriculture uses about 72% of the water. And municipalities use about 22% of the water, and industry, which includes electricity generation, and actually the water that's used to cool the cows and water, the cattle that's considered industrial, not agricultural. That's the, the rest of it by and large that we measure.

And it's down from where it was. So it's high, but if you look some years ago, it was probably over 90% and it varies a lot within the state. So if you look at that 72% number, that's a statewide average. You still have in Pinal County, agriculture, I think, is using about 90% of the water or more. But in other counties like Maricopa because of the urbanization, it's way down. So 72%, roughly three quarters, it's a lot.

So, Nancy, you have a, a farm in, in Casa Grande. How have you had to adjust your water usage? I mean, you, you, you and your, your colleagues down there are like the first people to really get hit by conservation and shortage of restrictions that have gone into effect.

NANCY CAYWOOD: Yeah. My granddad purchased our farm in 1930. So we're going on, you know, 95 years, and I've seen ditches that are our irrigation ditches lined with concrete on our farm. Unfortunately, we're in San Carlos Irrigation District, and we need lining in our canals really bad. But we've had to, we level our land. We go through the equip program for water conservation. And so our fields are dead level from side to side. We are forced into flood irrigation because we do not have lined canals and drip and sprinkler systems won't work.

We had a guy from a drip company come out and wanted to put us on a grant and we said, well, let's show you our water. And once he saw it, he was like, never mind. But what we try to do is keep our fields dead level from side to side with a slight slope. We've looked into alternative crops, but right, it's, it's really hard to diversify, you know, it's very costly.

What do you grow now?

CAYWOOD: We grow cotton, alfalfa, barley oats and silage corn.

Are those considered water intensive crops?

CAYWOOD: They are. But the thing is, is that, you know, when we don't have much water, we're looking for short crops. So corn is a 90-day ,oats is about that. So what we're trying to do is do a short crop versus, you know, longer like cotton. And we do have some alfalfa in the ground as well. When that comes out, I'm not sure we will be putting that back in.

So, Nancy, you mentioned that you've been leveling your farm, you're leveling your land. What's the, what's the benefit of doing that?

CAYWOOD: OK, if we have our fields dead level from side to side and we put a slight slope from the irrigation ditch to the field or to the end of the field. So when we run water, it runs straight out evenly, rather than, you know, part of the field will get to the end at one time and another part at another time, we want it to all get to the tail end of the field at the same time.

So all the excess water goes to the same place at the same time.

CAYWOOD: Yes. But what we do is we shut down our water when it's about 8 feet out. And then what's at the end of the field will just travel on to the end of the field and we're not creating tail water. That's embarrassing, we don't want that.

Sharon, what have you heard from farmers, you know, Nancy and others around the state, in terms of things that they have been trying to do to maybe use less water or adapt to getting less water.

MEGDAL: One of the things you have to realize when you talk about Arizona, agriculture is it's not monolithic. The situations vary depending upon where you're talking about. So in central Arizona, where farmers have been using quite a bit of Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona project, they've had some significant cutbacks of those supplies. Yet, the farmers in Yuma, Arizona, that are using the main stem, Colorado River water, they have not experienced cutback.

So if you ask the question, what are farmers doing, it depends upon where they are.

So, in the areas of Central Arizona where water supplies have diminished, farmers are fallowing fields, and that's often considered the worst outcome because it affects the economy, it affects the air quality, it affects the future use of that land if it's fallow for a long period of time. So farmers are fallowing fields. Farmers are considering different types of irrigation methods such as drip, such as a pressurized spray, something other than the flood irrigation that Nancy described.

They're looking at different crops, and I'm not a farmer. So I can't say what the decision making is, but what we have to remember, and I am an educator and I get questions all the time, is that farmers are business people, farmers are doing what they know how to do, what they usually love to do, and they're looking to make an income from it. And so sometimes we can look at those options, of following fields, different crops, different irrigation methods, but some of them take time to pilot, to experiment with, and there's got to be ultimately a market for the product.

a dry canal at caywood farms
Caywood Farms
A dry canal at Caywood Farms in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Well, Nancy, how do you try to balance the economics of it and the the water aspect of it? Given that in, in your neck of the woods in Pinal County, you're getting less water. And I imagine that you're trying to, you know, make do with less and, and use less so that you can make what you do have go further.

CAYWOOD: Right. And as Sharon said, we end up following fields in 2021, the San Carlos lake became very low. It had 228 acre feet on the other side of the dam. And so with that, our canals were shut down. So everything on our farm in the way of alfalfa went dormant, and we had no water to plant anything. In 2022, the same thing happened, the canals were shut down for six months. And so everything was followed, the alfalfa was dormant. And if you see drone shots of our farm, everything's just dried up.

And so my son, oh, by the way, we pay for a water assessment that is attached to our taxes. So if we were not to meet that water assessment, we could lose our land. So creative farming, my son Travis leases other land in Central Arizona Project. Well, now we've been cut on that and we have no CAP water. The irrigation district that we use is pumping some groundwater, but we're, we're out of water on those other leased farms. And so alfalfa is there, it'll go dormant, and we'll just have to see what our new water assessment is.

Can you continue to make a living like that?

CAYWOOD: This has been really hard, you know, with this farm being in our family for 90 almost 95 years, my granddad passed the farm to my parents and then my parents passed the farm, we lost them both in 2021 and they passed it to us. And my dad did say to us, you know, with this drought, you may have to consider selling. And we, he had thought about it himself, but we really want to hang in there.

And so, in December of 2021 my mother had been gone for about three months and my dad almost a year, and my son called me and he just said, you know, we need to talk, I don't know what we're going to do. And I think they were shining down on us because we came up with some plans, my sister and myself and my son and his wife, and we're implementing our plans.

And so far with more water in the dam, we're able to make ends meet right now. So we do want to hang in there. Lease land, I'm not sure what he's going to do, if he's going to renew leases. But with CAP water nearly unavailable to us, and the allocation is quite low with well water, we probably are going to have to give up some leases.

Sharon, you mentioned that the situation for farmers in different parts of the state is different, obviously based on where they get their water. If they're using Colorado River water or groundwater, that kind of thing. And we've talked about the fact that that farmers like Nancy in Pinal County have sort of been the first to take the brunt of Colorado River shortages. Do you anticipate that there will be, for farmers who rely on Colorado River water, use a majority of it, are there more restrictions coming in different parts of the state? Do you think for those farmers as well?

MEGDAL: There was real worry that the the shortage conditions would be so bad, maybe as early as 2024, that even in Yuma, farmers started talking about what to do how they could use less water from the Colorado River, possibly use groundwater which they haven't used there other than in very, very limited ways. And we, we got saved a bit with the precipitation this winter.

But this question of water use by farmers is a big one wherever you are in the state. But the circumstances really do differ, and, and I'd like to bring in mention of tribal agriculture because we have quite a lot of tribal agriculture occurring in the state, and their water situations may differ from non-tribal agriculture.

So if you look at the Fort Mojave up in the northwestern part of the state, they're not using all of the Colorado River water that they're entitled to, and they're building out some of their agriculture rather than contracting it. And then you've got situations where it's groundwater-dependent agriculture and the the cost of pumping groundwater is going up as groundwater levels decline.

And so even in central Arizona, there is groundwater as an alternative source of water, but it's very expensive to rebuild the infrastructure for the pumps and distribute it. It's, it's a different distribution exercise than using surface water. So these questions of using less water are there. They're real and just like anything else, don't flip the switch overnight. And so these things, these adjustments take time.

The issue of groundwater over pumping or overdraft. Sometimes we call it groundwater mining. It's a significant one.

Some areas are almost totally dependent on groundwater. If you look at the southeastern part of the state, most of that agriculture is supported by groundwater. Much of the groundwater is fossil groundwater, meaning it was deposited there eons ago, we're using it up and some of it is recharged but not at the rate at which it's being used. And so it, it is a concern. I think people recognize that it's in all of our interests to preserve our ability to have vibrant economies in rural parts of the state.

The question is though, when it comes to groundwater, it's an asset, we, we should use it to support the economies. But how much overdraft is too much overdraft? And that is a really significant question. A hard one to answer and one that's being grappled with across the world actually.

Now, I think there's not a lot of consensus on that.

MEGDAL: There's not a lot of consensus, but I think it's imperative upon us collectively to figure out, can we do things better than doing nothing? And so things like this conservation programs, the the laser leveling, the land leveling, those are things that are being done in some, some areas. It's not by regulation, they're choosing to do it. But there are also some things, best practices, conservation programs. There are things that I think we've learned through what's happened in the active management areas, which for the listeners who may not know those are the areas in which the state actively manages the groundwater by state statute. So take some of those conservation programs, take some of those lessons learned, but also talk about incentivizing people to do things differently.

So there's the carrot and there's the stick, the stick can be viewed as regulation. But putting more money into incentivizing some of these trials, using different crops, different irrigation. There's a lot of study going on on guayule, you know, an alternative to rubber in Central Arizona and that uses less water. But it's got all other con a lot of other considerations and there's a lot of work being done on that.

Nancy, how do you see that in terms of the, the carrot and the stick, in terms of things that you are told you have to do and things that you are maybe incentivized to try.

CAYWOOD: Oh, we're willing to try. Sharon talked about the guayale, we've been approached on it. We're, you know, looking and we're listening and but we are very open to listening to some of the needs. My dad in 1980 he served on many, many committees. He received an electric bill for it just exorbitant for pumping water. And he became very active and, and he started, him and my mother actually, were responsible for getting the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation District in place, and he served as the first president.

And so, you know, our history goes back so far and you have to be open, you have to as a farmer, you have to be very optimistic and you have to be very open-minded and listen to what's coming down the pike, you have to be aware of issues and then you have to be ready to take action if you need to.

And you're also going to do everything you can to diversify right now. It's, it's kind of interesting, but we do farm tours and believe it or not, it really helps us and not only does it help us financially, but it also helps us educate people about our issues.

nancy caywood stands next to a massey-harris tractor at the edge of a cotton field
Caywood Farms
Nancy Caywood

I want to go back to something Sharon talked about in terms of farmers being able and willing to make investments, not necessarily knowing for how long you will continue to be able to farm on that land. Like how, how does that play into? Like have you had instances for example, where you thought, well, we could do this, but this might turn into a shopping mall in a few years.

CAYWOOD: That's exactly true. ... So we do lease some land and right now there's a lot of houses being built around it. And so putting in sprinkler or drip and this would be on Central Arizona Project water, it would cost us so much money. And right now we're not getting that water. So there's no way that we can even improve. What we can do is take a land plane out there and try to level it the best we can. But to invest in a government program, we're not going to do that.

I want to ask both of you about sort of the economic question here because there's obviously an economics question for the farmers. But there's also sort of a broader question here, right? Like if we're not growing the crops on farms in Arizona that we have been growing, if we're not, you know, growing the, the fibers that have been growing, what does that do, Sharon, for the overall state? Because like, you have to look at not just the water, it seems to me, but also like what it's being used for and how that sort of plays into the wellbeing of the state as well.

MEGDAL: Some of these questions are really big questions. And Arizona is actually a highly urbanized state, meaning a lot of its population lives in the urban areas. But its history and its current personality is more than the cities. And so the questions of the vibrancy of the agricultural sector, the culture, the rural, rural nature of it, it's very important to the state of Arizona. We don't want to see all of the state urbanized. We want to see people being able to work in communities where they've grown up, and this is no different than many other areas of the world.

There's, there's a movement to the urban areas because of, of the job prospects and so forth. And so I sometimes liken it a bit to some of the discussion about, you know, the future of communities that are dependent on coal mining, right? It's the nature of the people, it's the nature of the community, but it's a, there's a vertical integration, there's a multiplier effect. If there's nothing being grown, then they don't need the machinery, they're not getting the income, they're not getting the haircuts.

So it's really important to the, the nature of Arizona that we have rural economies.

CAYWOOD: Yeah, I would like to think of it as an ecosystem also because we formed our, it, it's cooling when you drive through agricultural country, it's much cooler. The one thing that I want to hit on is encroachment on solar panels, because we're surrounded by them and they're putting in solar panels right across the street.

Like big solar farms, you mean?

CAYWOOD: I'm, yes, I'm talking thousands of acres. And the reason that's happening mostly in our area is because the San Carlos Irrigation District, you know, the, the dam, you know, the lake dried up. And so a lot of farmers didn't want to have to pay water and taxes and they, they just couldn't make it, make it work anymore. So they sold out, and the solar development is what moved in.

So we're being surrounded by it. And we're also seeing our, our temperatures go up, you know, around our fields. What we produce here, it's amazing. Arizona could grow crops year-round. We have ideal growing climates. It's what, a $23.3 billion industry. It's huge.

And a lot of people I grew up in the time, and I know you did too, when we had seasonal crops, you know, you couldn't get corn, you couldn't get watermelon. And we were thrilled because my mother would, we had big gardens and she would freeze and can. So we got watermelon on New Year's Day, you know. But now Arizona has that climate where we could grow that.

And I always like to talk about, I'm an educator, so I like to talk about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And on the very, very bottom of that pyramid is survival and food is survival. And because of our climate here, it's important that we keep agriculture here. It, it plays a very, very important part of our economy. And also, I just believe it's an ecosystem as well.

Nancy, understanding that crystal balls are often cloudy. I'm curious when you look ahead a little bit, let's say three years, five years, 10 years, what does agriculture in the state look like? What does your farm look like?

CAYWOOD: We hope to have our farm, you know, we hope that this drought may be ending. I don't know, we got more rain last year, but then now we're not getting it, you know. And so we just have to hope that things change and we start getting rain so that we can continue farming.

Looking down the road, being optimistic, we're hoping that Cooley's Dam continues to get water, and we continue to farm. We have to hope that the Colorado River continues to flow and increase the the levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell and hopefully we'll get water again from the Central Arizona Project. I don't know if that'll happen. But, you know, we, we're looking down the road, you know, Travis puts the pencil to it on how much you grow, how much it takes to grow cotton and barley and alfalfa. So we pick and choose our crops very carefully.

But we hope to continue doing that. We want to keep the farming tradition in our family. And you know, we're proud, we're proud to be farmers and we want to keep it in our area.

MEGDAL: But, but I think it's I think we do have to acknowledge there, there will be changes.

First of all, we know if you just look at the Phoenix area and you look at Salt River Project and you look at that they were 90-plus percent agricultural water use 100 years ago, and now they're 90-plus percent urban community water use. So individual landowners make their decisions and some will sell for development and so forth. So I, I think we'll see some development of farmlands just like we have for the last 100 years. I also think that we can look to other areas and look at different technologies and what they've learned just a couple of things here, and that is that Nancy mentioned solar farms, but something that's really getting a lot of attention and the University of Arizona is researching this and others is this agri-voltaic, this idea of growing crops underneath the solar panels and there's a, there's a synergistic effect. You, you keep the panels cooler, the crops are shaded. And so that's something that's being studied and being looked at, at different environments. 

Drip irrigation. I, I, I'm in touch with two different Israeli companies are that are using drip or, or installing drip here in Arizona and I'm just learning there. You know, it's, it, it can work in some cases with alfalfa. And so all over the world there is this need to produce more food and preferably with less water. And I don't think we in Arizona are exempt from those pressures to see how can we do more with less. And that's what I think we all have to work on, including the universities and the University of Arizona.

aerial photo of caywood farms
Caywood Farms
Caywood Farms in Casa Grande, Arizona.

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