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Yuma's fertile ag region could be choked off

A proposed Union Pacific railroad through Yuma County, Ariz., that would originate from a proposed seaport built at Punta Colonet, located about 150 miles south of Tijuana, Mexico, has drawn strong concerns from Yuma farmers and Arizona government leaders.

Yuma, a major agricultural production area on Arizona's southwestern border, produces 70 percent to 80 percent of the nation's supply of salad vegetables during the winter months. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service-Arizona office, the cash receipt value of Yuma County agriculture in 2004 was $879.9 million.

“Agriculture is a thriving industry if it's not choked off. Rail lines and regulations keep it from being a profitable industry,” said John Boelts, a local vegetable grower and president of the Yuma County Farm Bureau.

About 200 anxious farmers and other landowners jam-packed a Farm Bureau-sponsored public information meeting on the proposal in late September to share their newfound knowledge on the issue.

“A third party right of way agent came to me in the spring to acquire options on property from me and my family to bring in a railroad from Mexico,” said Robby Barkley, president of Barkley Seeds in Yuma. The company ships seed out of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

The surprising visit spurred Barkley into research mode. West Coast ports are at capacity and shipping companies are looking for alternatives including Mexico and Canada, he learned. “There is a plan under way to put out to bid to build a port. The railroad calls it ‘Project Thomas.’” Going through California would bring too much opposition, he said.

Mark Spencer, who grows fruit on the Yuma mesa, shared his concerns. “Anytime you start talking about legal documents, signing them and dollars going out then it's far enough along for me to be worried about it,” said Spencer, chief executive officer of Associated Citrus Packers.

“Even though Yuma County is becoming increasingly urbanized, our community still embraces and depends on our agricultural industry,” said Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association President C.R. Waters. “We cannot allow any entity — no matter how large and powerful — to openly disregard our way of life, our economic base, or the well-being of our community.”

At the Farm Bureau's Sept. 7 annual meeting, the Farm Bureau passed a policy stating: “Agricultural areas in Yuma County are highly unsuitable for such a rail line due to food safety, air quality and transportation issues. Such a rail line passing through established agricultural areas would also negatively affect existing farms, homes and businesses, and would denigrate quality of life and property values in those areas.”

Yuma farm leaders have experience fighting issues that threaten the county's agricultural economy. Two years ago farmers, under the leadership of agribusiness leader Harold Maxwell, united to oppose expansion of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area that threatened landowners' property rights. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., championed legislation through Congress to scale back the plan. The measure is now awaiting President Bush's signature. Farmers were later involved in a conservation multi-species issue.

The railroad plan could include a double track line where one track heads in each direction. At full development, an estimated 50 to 80, one-mile-long trains could head east daily with the same number westbound.

Phone calls to Union Pacific were not returned.

The trains would be banned from stopping in Yuma, except for a crew change at a marshaling yard. Mexican train employees would be replaced by U.S. employees and vice-a-versa depending on the direction the train was headed. The minimum train speed through Yuma would be 15 miles per hour. Eastbound trains would likely carry dry Asian goods into the United States.

Spencer said there is no potential for shipping Yuma-grown farm products elsewhere on the trains because of the no-stop policy. He is far from a railroad aficionado. His last fruit shipment sent by rail was lost for weeks.

Spencer's concern for Yuma agriculture is about the added costs caused by moving farm equipment longer distances to dodge the trains that would result in increased farm production costs. Farmers at the meeting said Union Pacific would allow crossings only every two miles. For farmers in the vegetable harvest season buzz, limited crossings would translate into frustration, lost time, increased danger and higher wages.

“If I have to irrigate a field, I have to negotiate two miles of track to get from one field to another,” said Spencer. “Everything takes longer. I have to pay my people more money. Maybe I can't get to the head of my water used for irrigation when I need to so that would cost me more money. Multiply that by spraying and tilling. The impact would be horrific for growers.”

Roll, Ariz., farmer David Sharp expressed environmental concerns from increased train traffic. He pointed to the county's bare miss of being cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for excessive dust levels or PM-10 (particulate matter of 10 microns or less). Yuma's larger sister city, Phoenix, is currently in violation of PM-10 standards and is now imposing stricter air quality guidelines on industries including agriculture to reduce dust levels. Failure to meet EPA guidelines could result in the loss of millions of dollars in state highway funds.

“What would happen if you start having 50 to 60 trains a day coming through and dumping pollutants. The type of pollution that comes from trains and trucks is the particulate matter they (EPA) are looking for,” said Sharp.

Another concern over the proposed Yuma route is the impact of vibration from the trains on agriculture's infrastructure. Irrigation systems are laid out by main lines, laterals and dirt ditches which run in every direction.

District Conservationist Bobbi McDermott of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Yuma said, “Any impediment to water moving caused by train vibration could be a big problem. Everything here is gravity flow.” In addition, the rail line could make it more difficult for irrigators to move from field to field. She noted an extra 15 minutes of unneeded irrigation could push nutrients deeper into the soil. “Then you have problems with water logging and plant diseases.”

Arizona government leaders have also expressed concerns on the rail plan.

“It's a horrendous way to do business,” said Lori Faeth, spokesperson for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. “The governor is very upset with Union Pacific and does not support the proposed route.” Faeth criticized the railroad for not following the appropriate channels, including a community process to gather input. “All of this has shocked us,” she said.

In a letter dated Sept. 28 from the Arizona Department of Transportation to Union Pacific Railroad Chief Executive Officer James Young, ADOT Director Victor Mendez expressed extreme disappointment that Union Pacific has authorized an agent to begin negotiating options on land with various landowners in Yuma County.

“The apparent route would potentially take out significant portions of prime Yuma County farmland, impacting an industry that has enormous economic benefit to Yuma and to Arizona,” Mendez said. “ADOT cannot support a proposed route that has been established without a widespread community involvement process, nor one that is so clearly divisive in the Yuma community.”

Mendez urged Union Pacific to quickly institute a community dialogue about the railroad's plans that include other route options or else public support in Arizona may be impossible to achieve.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture's spokesperson, Shilo Mitchell, said anything that impacts Yuma agriculture is of great concern to the department. The ADA has not seen an actual UP proposal and has no jurisdiction on the issue, she added.

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