Western Farm Press Logo

Pinal County farmers expect a dry future

Group says central Arizona growers will lose water under drought plan.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

February 20, 2019

4 Min Read
Corn is planted in Pinal County, Ariz., where growers stand to lose 60 percent of their Colorado River water under the state's Drought Contingency Plan.Andrew Hartman/Arizona Farm Bureau Federation

Arizona has 15 counties, all of them contributors in some way to agriculture in various forms.  Yuma is known as “the Winter Leafy Greens Capitol of the World” while Santa Cruz County on the other end of the state is home to the internationally-known Green Valley Pecan Company.

In between is Pinal County, ranked within the Top 60 most-agriculturally–productive counties out of the 2,000 counties throughout America. 

“In total, agriculture in all our counties generates $23.3 billion, an amount even larger than the state’s tourism industry,” says Stefanie Smallhouse, President of the 25,000-member Arizona Farm Bureau Federation.

“Pinal County, with its more than 900 farms, is largely a livestock-producing area --- half of all cattle and cotton sales in the state come from here and represent in excess of $2.3 billion in combined agriculture and agribusiness sales,” she says. 


County Supervisor Steve Miller knows the importance of Pinal’s ag industry, acknowledging: “On the national agricultural production scene, we’re a major player --- emphasis on major.”

“The biggies are cotton, cotton seed, and livestock, both beef and dairy,” says Smallhouse, adding, “We’re also quite productive in corn, barley, and other forage crops in addition to vegetables.  For Pinal County, agriculture is one large economic driver.  If that industry were to falter and fail, it wouldn’t be like a hole you could walk over, it would create a vacuum where the county would collapse.”

Pinal County ranks in the top 2 percent of all U.S. counties in total value of agricultural sales and “the contribution of agriculture to the county economy goes beyond direct sales value of crops and livestock in the form of farmgate sales or agricultural cash receipts, a ‘ripple’ of economic activity to meet demands of farmers and ranchers that derive income from agriculture,” according to a recent report by the University of Arizona titled Contribution of On-Farm Agriculture and Agribusiness to the Pinal County Economy.

The flip side of that coin is that while crop production is a money maker, it’s heavily dependent on Colorado River water. And in the recently-signed (Jan. 31) Drought Contingency Plan, there will be less of it for those farmers despite $9 million allocated to construct new wells and systems to deliver groundwater, industry leaders say.


Arizona farmers use the most water, per acre on average, of those in any state for all crops, according to USDA data --- an average of 4.4-acre-feet-per-acre, or more than twice the national average.

Under the state’s plan for dealing with drought, farmers who receive Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal expect their allocation to be cut by 60 percent, from 275,000 acre-feet to 105,000 acre-feet, in the first three years of a shortage before they lose their surface supply entirely, the Arizona Republic reports.

According to Arizona Farm Bureau lobbyist Chelsea McGuire, Pinal farmers already feel they’re efficient in their water use with 85% of the liquid going to irrigating crops as opposed to run-off or seepage into aquifers.

Here’s the Farm Bureau take on that topic: “Since the 1980 groundwater code, the last large piece of water legislation passed in this state, farmers have implemented lots of efficiencies – not just with irrigation practices, but with land-leveling, ditch-lining, and best management practices using biotech crops which allows them to practice no-till to maintain soil moisture.”

Here’s the rub, according to AFB Chief Smallhouse: “Pinal County farmers have their livelihoods on the line here and the Drought Contingency Plan represented a compromise solution.  I think they’ll be more satisfied when we have complete certainty that everyone involved in the process will be doing everything they promised because these farmers will feel the pain of water loss immediately, they’ll be the first ones losing wet water.  At the end of the negotiations, we had to go for funding mitigation, but many farmers are contemplating the possibility of changing crops or fallowing a good percent of their land, some wondering whether they’re even going to stay in business or not.


“There was a settlement in 2004 where they were promised a certain amount of water for a certain period of time at a certain price and everything they’ve done since then had been based on a plan from that promise.  Then when someone comes to you and says, ‘OK, we’re going to cut that plan short by ten years, it’s like a punch in the gut.  People don’t understand the amount of time it takes to make investments in land in a farming operation and the planning that goes with it.  You plan for the next generation, not the next year or two down the road.

“You’re talking about guys who were promised something in 2004 and that promise got broken.  So, at this point, our farmers are saying until the ink is dry on the agreements for where wet water is going to come from or for federal grant money, I don’t think they’re going to sleep soundly at night until that happens.  There’s still a lot of anxiety and nobody feels like a winner at this point.  It’s the old, once- burned, twice-cautious situation.  Our farmers feel they got what they could and now we just have to make sure everything comes to fruition.”

About the Author(s)

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like