The day we wished would never come has arrived: on August 16, the Bureau of Reclamation declared that Lake Mead will be in a Tier One shortage level beginning 2022. With the elevation of the lake below 1,075 feet, Arizona will now be subject to significant cuts in water deliveries from the Colorado River.  

Pinal County agriculture relies on an almost equal mix of groundwater and surface water. The surface water comes from the “excess pool,” delivered through the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal. The excess pool is made up of water that’s not already under contract with higher priority CAP users – in other words, it’s the lowest priority water source on the CAP. Under the terms of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, a Tier One shortage triggers a 512,000-acre-foot reduction in Arizona’s Colorado River deliveries. Accordingly, the entire excess pool will be eliminated, and Central Arizona agriculture will no longer have access to surface water from the Colorado River.

While this news came as a surprise to no one, it still brings with it dire consequences for farmers in the Central Arizona valley. According to a 2008 study by the University of Arizona, a 300,000-acre-foot reduction in water deliveries will lead to a decrease of $63 to $66 million in farm sales alone. And that doesn’t account for the decrease in input or equipment sales or any of the other multiplier effects that make agriculture the economic engine of Pinal County.


Mitigating the Impact

To mitigate the impacts of this severe water cut, several higher priority water users have agreed to forgo some of their CAP deliveries and allow that water to flow down to farms in Pinal County. This will account for about 105,000 acre-feet, but that mitigation will only last for one year.


The longer-term solution is for farms to return to a higher reliance on groundwater. To facilitate that, the irrigation districts in the county are embarking on a project to increase groundwater pumping capacity. And this project is no small feat: the estimated cost is upwards of $50 million, and the ratepayers in the district can’t shoulder that expense on their own. So, since 2019, the districts have been working with a variety of partners to identify other sources, both state and federal, to help alleviate the cost of this essential project.


But at the end of the day, there is no readily identifiable way to mitigate the impending cutbacks. Pumping 300,000 acre-feet of groundwater just isn’t realistic, and there are not enough higher-priority users who can diver their allotments to keep water flowing down the canal. Ultimately, the viability of Pinal County agriculture is going to depend on its ability to make some very significant changes in a very short amount of time.


Water Security at the Expense of Agriculture

The first thing that most of Arizona’s thought leaders have been quick to point out over the last few weeks is that this shortage declaration does not mean that we are running out of water. Homeowners in Central Arizona won’t see their taps running dry any time soon. Arizona is a water resilient state.


And while this talking point is accurate, it’s also incomplete: Arizona is a water resilient state because agriculture is positioned to bear the pain of water scarcity. The margins in water planning across the state were made possible by agriculture. Farmers were responsible for shouldering the burden of developing Arizona’s water supply. They allowed Arizona to take its full allocation of CAP water so that it wouldn’t be commandeered by our neighboring state to the West.

Additionally, farmers spent decades and countless dollars investing in ways to make limited water go further to feed and clothe our state. And now, they are the first to lose access to the resource that they were instrumental in securing. And that leads us to an era in which the state must ask itself how much farming production it is willing to lose – and whether the state is prepared for the consequences.