November 11, 2021

Arizona Legislator Working on Long-Range Water Solutions

By Tim Linden

When water officials for the federal government revealed in mid-August that, for the first time in history, there will be a cutback in water deliveries to Arizona starting January 1, many people saw dark skies ahead. But not everyone.

“We had planned for it,” said Arizona State Representative Tim Dunn of Yuma. “That’s why we had the Drought Contingency Plan and it’s why we have been water banking for many years. Arizona planned for this day.”

Rep. Dunn said the groundwater replenishment that has been going on for years will help Arizona “bridge the gap” while it explores other options. He did note that the shortage is serious and “there is a 42 percent chance that in two years, we will have Tier 3 cutbacks.”

The Tier 1 cutbacks will impact Central Arizona farmers in Pinal County most severely as there will be a reduction of 18 percent of the 2.8 million acre feet of water annually delivered to the Central Arizona Water Project from the Colorado River in 2022. The reduction falls more heavily on that project because of prior agreements. Pinal County farmers are typically involved in field crop production as well as dairy farms and cattle ranches. There are few fresh produce crops grown in that region.

If drought conditions continue, it has been estimated that Tier 2 cutbacks could come in 2023 followed by Tier 3 reductions in 2024.

State Rep. Dunn told Western Grower & Shipper in early October that regardless of the severity of the cutbacks, Arizona needs to continue to look for alternative water sources, just as it has done for years. In fact, Dunn is championing several out-of-the-box ideas. One such idea is tapping flood water from the Mississippi River and building a canal that will take it to Arizona.

Dunn admits that this is a far-fetched idea but he said it could have applicability. While it would cost billions in infrastructure, it could save billions in damage caused by Mississippi River flooding that could be averted. He supports the Arizona Legislature asking Congress to fund a study to gauge the viability of such an effort, factoring in potential benefits. Most importantly, he wants to see the light shined on different ideas that can spark new thinking. “Maybe tapping the Mississippi isn’t feasible, but tapping the Snake River might work,” he said advocating the exploration of various potential water supply solutions.

The Yuma representative admitted that any idea of tapping a river hundreds of miles away is a long-term solution that could take decades to complete. He said a concept that could certainly be achieved quicker would be the building of a desalination plant in northern Mexico near the Sea of Cortez. Fresh water from such a facility could either be used by Mexico, thus reducing its need for the Colorado River water it is entitled to, or that water could be transported north to Arizona and blended with other water sources. Again, Dunn believes this is an idea with merit that needs to be explored.

In a discussion of the water situation, the legislator rattled off a number of other options that are on the table to either conserve water or find new sources. He said both approaches must be part of the solution. He believes the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement about the mandated cutbacks for the Grand Canyon State have led to a heightened awareness by the populous, which should lead to greater conservation efforts.

Rep. Dunn does worry about the public relations challenge for agriculture. He noted that one of his main goals is to protect the interests of agriculture, which is one of the state’s leading industries. “When people hear that agriculture uses 72 percent of all the water in Arizona, they think that is where the cutbacks should come first,” he said. “But they don’t consider that 90 percent of the nation’s winter lettuce comes from Yuma.”

He said ag is a big contributor to the state’s economy and he considers it his job to make sure people don’t lose sight of that. “We need to educate folks.”

While Dunn said people should “pray for rain” this winter, he also knows that more concrete action must be taken. He believes Arizona farmers will get through 2022 with the reduction in water because, as he mentioned, the state has been planning for this and does have contingency plans. As time goes by, and if further cutbacks are required, he expects summer crops to be fallowed first with field crops initially on the chopping block.

He explained that winter production of vegetable crops in Yuma are not in danger of seeing water reductions any time soon. He added that while there is reason to worry about the water situation, he also expressed confidence that Arizona farmers and the Arizona Legislature will find solutions.