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Pinal County farmers told not to demand more in drought contingency plan

January 19, 2019

PHOENIX — An organization that represents major Arizona cities is effectively warning Pinal County farmers not to demand more in the proposed drought contingency plan.

Warren Tenney, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association said he believes the plan, delivered to lawmakers this week and awaiting legislative action, has been more than generous to the farmers.

It includes a promise of 105,000 acre feet of Colorado River water for the next three years, 70,000 acre feet of groundwater for four years after that. The draft legislation also includes $5 million in state cash to drill wells and construct delivery systems for that water.

And Tenney said cities will recharge 100,000 acre feet of their own water allocation over a three-year period.

Only thing is, the farm interests want $10 million from the state. And they want the state to be the backstop if the federal government does not come through with additional cash for well construction for farmers to be able to get that groundwater, a figure that could approach $50 million.

That, in turn, could upend efforts to get lawmakers to approve the final plan by the Jan. 31 deadline set by Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. She has told the affected states her agency will step in if they don’t come up with an acceptable plan to keep water levels in Lake Mead from dropping any further.

“What we’re trying to say is, enough is enough,’’ Tenney told Capitol Media Services.

His organization is doing more than verbal saber rattling.

It also has prepared its own report seeking to debunk — or at least minimize — a report commissioned by Pinal farmers about how not getting the water they need would have a major impact on the economy.

That report performed under contract with the University of Arizona says that the county accounts for 45 percent of the sales of cattle and calves in the state, 42 percent of its cotton and cottonseed, 39 percent of milk sold in the state and 22 percent of other crops and hay. And agribusiness, inclduing food manufacturing, makes up 25 percent of the county manufacturing jobs.

All totaled, the report says the total contribution of agriculture and agribusiness to the Pinal economy in 2016 was nearly $2.3 billion in sales.

AMWUA does not dispute those numbers. But the organization said this has to be put into perspective, saying that the agriculture and agribusiness in Pinal represented only about two-tenths of a percent of the state’s economy, half as much as does golf.

More to the point, the report contends that the costs of getting the farmers the water they want may exceed the loss to the economy.

Attorney Paul Orme who represents some Pinal irrigation districts said the study was not seeking to claim that the loss of water would damage the whole state. What it was, he said, was explaining how it would undermine the economy of the county.

On an even smaller scale is the effect on individual farmers.

Dan Thelander said last year he grew 2,200 acres of alfalfa sold a local dairy for milk cows. There also was silage corn for another dairy, durum wheat for a pasta maker in Tolleson and 1,400 acres of cotton that was exported.

Thelander said he and other farmers spent $90 million to be able to take Colorado River water to reduce groundwater pumping, putting their land up as collateral. That spending, he said, is in jeopardy if there is no river water to deliver.

That, he said, is why that 105,000 acre feet of water should be guaranteed for at least three years plus the cash to build wells and pipelines for groundwater after that.

Tiffany Shedd, another area farmer, said they were not being selfish in demanding the water and the money for the wells.

She said it was the farmers who essentially financed the construction of the Central Arizona Project, making payments even before cities showed any interest in using -- and paying for -- any Colorado River water.

“And I think it’s safe to say turnabout is fair play,’’ Shedd said.

Tenney, however, prefers to look at it through the lens of agriculture actually getting more water than it otherwise would be entitled to take.

He said prior agreements were made of who would lose deliveries if the amount of Colorado River water were reduced. Those agreements, Tenney said, would give the farmers only about 70,000 to 80,000 acre feet of water a year,far less than the plan would provide for the next three years.

Asking for more, he said, is wrong.

“There has been a lot of effort, there has been a plan put in place to take care of Pinal agriculture,’’ he said. “And the time is now for us to shift our focus from just one sector in one county to focus on Arizona’s economy as a whole.’’

But Orme said Tenney’s claims of what farmers would otherwise get is based on some games being played.

He said what happened is that the cities and tribes decided this year to order as much Colorado River water as they could, regardless of what they actually needed. Orme said that in turn made it look like there was really less water for agriculture if the drought contingency plan were not adopted.

Orme said what the farmers demanded -- that 105,000 acre feet annually of river water followed by 70,000 acre feet from groundwater -- is based on what was available, on average, for the prior eight years, before the cities took their full allocation.

“This jacking up their water order for the 2019 water year was manipulating this whole process to argue that our baseline is lower than we believe it actually is,’’ he said.

Orme said the demand for cash for well construction is justified.

He said the farmers would be just as happy getting that 70,000 acre feet for the last four years of the deal from the Colorado River. It was only that the deal was to provide well water instead, Orme said, that necessitates the need for the finances to ensure the farmers can, in fact, get it pumped and delivered.

And there’s something else.

Orme said the farmers want more than just vague assurances that water -- and money -- will be coming.

“It can’t just be numbers on paper,’’ he said. “It has to be a reality.’’

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