This is Part 2 in a series on the Colorado River. For Part 1, click here. For Part 3, click here
Farmers in Pinal County, Arizona, knew they were taking a risk nearly two decades ago when they agreed to be among the first people to lose water from the Colorado River if there were a shortage.
“They were talking about charging us full cost for water, and farmers just couldn't afford that,” Arnold Burruel said, looking at the concrete canal slicing a blue ribbon through the dusty landscape. To get a cheaper supply, farmers signed a shorter-term agreement, knowing they were betting on how long water would last.
The canal near Burruel’s farm in Eloy, Arizona, is a tiny piece of the Central Arizona Project, a vast 336-mile network of pumps, tunnels, and pipelines that transports close to 500 billion gallons of water each year from the Colorado River. CAP moves this immense amount of water across the desert and 3,000 feet uphill to Arizona’s densely populated central corridor, where 80% of the state’s residents live. Transporting so much water makes CAP the largest power user in the state.
“When I got into farming here, CAP was just coming in and Pinal County was a wasteland — just dry desert with irrigation ditches running everywhere,” Burruel said, driving through his 2,200-acre farm filled with emerald green Bermuda grass, which he sells for horse feed. “I started buying land here because it was so cheap, and nobody had any confidence.”
His bet paid off. CAP took 20 years to build and cost $4.4 billion, but since its completion in the ’90s, it has spurred substantial growth in central Arizona, now placing the state’s farmland in the top 2% of US counties for agricultural sales. And it shifted people in the desert away from how they had been getting water for decades: pumping it from aquifers deep underground.
But in the Southwest’s arid landscape, it is no longer certain how much people can rely on the Colorado River. A 22-year megadrought and growing demands across the Colorado River Basin have depleted the river, pushing Western reservoirs to historic lows and triggering the first-ever federally declared water shortages. For Western states, this means cuts.
In 2022, Arizona will implement the largest cuts, losing 20% of its Colorado River water. This shortage falls hardest on farmers in its central valley, who are navigating a difficult decision between using less water on their farms, selling their land, or returning to pumping groundwater.
Some scientists and policymakers worry that using groundwater to compensate for shortages will lead the state back to the problem that CAP had temporarily solved: pumping the land dry. Before CAP, overdraft was so serious — 760 billion gallons of groundwater each year — that the federal government refused to fund the project unless the state figured out how to replenish its supply.
While Arizona’s most populated areas have closely managed groundwater for decades, 80% of the state has no laws protecting how much is taken from the ground. In places like Cochise County, unregulated large-scale irrigation by corporate farms is already causing a crisis as household wells run dry.
“People really need to understand groundwater is a finite resource,” said Kathleen Ferris, a researcher and former policymaker who spent 45 years developing groundwater legislation in Arizona. “If you keep depleting it, it will not be there when you need it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Initial cuts will hit desert farmers hardest.
The Colorado River is Arizona’s largest renewable water source, providing 36% of its supply each year. Most of this — 70% — is used for agriculture. For centuries, farmers in the Southwest have used river water to irrigate crops. But hotter temperatures, less predictable snowpack, and lower soil moisture are depleting the Colorado at an alarming rate. From 2000 to 2019, its flow was 18% less than the previous century’s average, and studies show its decline could reach 35% to 50% by the end of this century.
To reduce its usage of the river, Arizona's 2019 drought plan outlines cuts for central valley farms, secures long-term leases from Native American tribes with senior water rights, and allocates millions of dollars to compensate stakeholders willing to use less water. The bulk of cuts, about 97 billion gallons, will hit Pinal County farmers, who expect to fallow 20% to 40% of their farmland next year due to shortages, according to the county’s farm bureau.
“Mother Nature came at us so hard and fast, it threw farmers' preplanning out the window,” said Julie Murphree, the director of outreach at Arizona Farm Bureau. “If this megadrought had not been so severe, farmers would have had time to adjust.” But, she added, ”If this is permanent, there are deeper issues for all of us to think about beyond agriculture, for us as people planting roots in arid environments.”
Pinal County farmers have known since signing the 2004 settlement that their water deliveries would gradually be reduced before ending completely in 2030. Shortages have reduced this timeline significantly. Under Arizona’s drought plan, Pinal County farms are set to lose access to all their river water in 2023.
In exchange, irrigation districts in the county secured $45 million in state and federal funds to expand groundwater irrigation — a decision that has sparked intense debate.
“We got $20 million to drill more wells in a well field over an aquifer that we pumped dry four or five decades ago. I don't understand it. I don't understand the reasoning,” said Burruel, who also serves on the board of the Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District. “I’m not against the wells, but we need to know more about our aquifer… We can’t afford to pump it dry again.”
After farming for 40 years, Burruel understands that in the highly managed basin of the lower Colorado River, human decisions, more than natural hydrology, determine where agriculture survives. He is currently in negotiations to sell his Pinal farmland to a solar company.
“Farmers are anxious because there’s so much about the future they don’t know. There’s a lot of anxiety here over what it will look like if this drought continues,” said Chelsea McGuire, the director of government relations with the Arizona Farm Bureau.
Relying on groundwater could pump the land dry.
As Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest reservoirs in the US, have seen dramatic drops in water levels, national attention has focused on how states plan to mitigate shortages on the Colorado River. Less has been said about what’s happening underground, where the water we cannot see is steadily disappearing.
From 2002 to 2017, aquifers in southern Arizona and California’s southern Central Valley lost a volume of water greater than the entire storage capacity of Lake Mead, according to a recent study of 14 major US aquifers based on NASA satellite data.
These declines are troubling, considering Arizona’s efforts to protect its groundwater stretch back to 1980, when legislators drafted its first Groundwater Management Act. Today, one-fifth of the state, an area stretching from Phoenix to Tucson, is divided into “Active Management Areas,” where laws limit how much, and where, water can be withdrawn. Municipalities in these areas have invested billions to improve water usage, helping keep the state’s water use close to its 1950s levels despite its population expanding from 1 million people to over 7 million.
But while the 1980 legislation set 2025 as the year Active Management Areas would achieve a balance between the water that people take from the ground and how much is restored to aquifers, 41 years later, no managed area is on track to meet this goal. An Arizona State University report outlines where efforts to date are failing, and it emphasizes that focusing on conservation and better efficiency will not save enough water to balance growing demand.
CAP helped replenish groundwater levels in Active Management Areas, but most people continue to rely on aquifers for about 40% of their water supply. With no end in sight to the megadrought, and temporary drought plans between states that share the river set to expire in 2025, it is possible that the already unprecedented cuts for states will need to be deepened. Economic pressures to support urban growth and irrigated agriculture, combined with less river water to recharge aquifers, make some in Arizona feel they are on a crash course with climate change.
“There’s never going to be enough surface water with all these shortages to replenish groundwater pumped,” said Ferris, who helped draft the state’s Groundwater Management Act in 1980 before serving as director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the agency responsible for managing groundwater in the state. “What’s happening in Pinal County is just the tip of the iceberg.”
In many parts of the state, wells are already running out of water.
On the drive down Highway 191 in the southeastern corner of Arizona, the desert suddenly blooms with brilliant green circles of crops. Further south comes a seemingly endless sea of cattle belonging to Riverview, a massive dairy-and-beef conglomerate. Further still are row upon row of pecan and nut orchards. That mega-farms in Cochise County are pumping groundwater at an unsustainable rate and draining desert aquifers has been well documented. Despite these reports, groundwater pumping continues, and running out of water has become a chronic source of stress for a growing number of residents in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
Towns in the valley rely primarily on water drawn from wells for their homes and businesses. And as groundwater levels decline due to agricultural pumping, more and more residents are reporting their wells running dry.
Barbara Kaiser and her husband drove west in their motorhome a decade ago with plans to build a home and retire on their 80-acre property. But her husband died, and Kaiser, now 74, was burdened with figuring out how to haul water after her well ran dry for the second time in June. She also had to choose between saving money to deepen her well or saving for the home she still hopes to build on her property.
“It'll take me about a year to get the $15,000 saved to have the well redrilled,” Kaiser said, opening the lid of her 250-gallon temporary water tank to check its level. “But the thing is, after the $15,000 is gone, who's to say that water is going to be there? I'm just one person. There are lots of us out here, all over Arizona. What do we do? Do we spend the money if we've got it? If we don't, do we get it and spend the money on another well?”
Kaiser is not alone in her distress. Marcy Collignon and Anje Duckels moved into their pale pink home overlooking the Cochise Mountains in February. As first-time homebuyers, they were excited to have a space for their family. Weeks later, the kitchen faucet slowed to a trickle. An inspection by a local driller determined the well was on the verge of drying up.
“I was at work, and Anje texted to call as soon as I could, and she was sobbing. It was heartbreaking,” Collignon said, loading clothes into a washer at the laundromat, which the family uses instead of their own machines to save water. “The one thing we’ve both wanted this whole time is some place that not only do we feel like is ours but somewhere that when our kids move off, they can come back and always know they have a place.”
While large irrigation and farm operations can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to drill high-capacity wells 1,000 or more feet deep, smaller farms and local residents cannot.
As it stands, what is happening in Cochise County remains perfectly legal. In 2020, lawmakers introduced a dozen bipartisan bills that would have addressed the lack of groundwater management for residents in 80% of Arizona. But not a single bill made it through.
“We’ve got to update our legislation,” said Arizona state Rep. Regina Cobb, a Republican who authored and introduced two bills targeting rural groundwater management that would help the districts she represents. “Here we are, 40 years later, still talking about doing something, and we have done nothing for rural areas.”
Cities — and other Western states — are in trouble too.
Arizona’s booming housing development is another significant pressure on the state’s water supply. In Pinal County, there is currently a freeze on new residential growth triggered by an estimated 2.6 trillion–gallon shortfall of groundwater in the next 100 years — a quarter of which comes from planned developments.
Under Arizona law, before selling subdivided property, developers in Active Management Areas of the state need to obtain a certificate of “assured water supply” for 100 years. Included in the 1980s groundwater legislation to protect homebuyers and steer development to where water was available, state legislators altered the requirement in the ’90s to allow reliance on groundwater pumped from depths up to 1,100 feet — clearing the way for developers to continue building in areas of the state dependent on groundwater.
The original plan was to use CAP water to replenish a portion of groundwater supply in these areas. But with less CAP water available, rapidly expanding development, and so many enrolled in the assured water program, it’s no longer clear how CAP will meet this demand. “Excess CAP water will not be sufficient to meet all obligations during the next 20 years, much less the next 100 years,” a 2004 plan stated, mandating that CAP operators find additional sources of water.
Where this water will come from is an open question for people in cities throughout central Arizona. Pointing to a series of large developments slated for the Phoenix metropolitan area and its surrounding region, an Arizona State University report calculated what researchers called an “alarming quantity” of water promised in the next 100 years.
With growing scientific consensus that climate change will make hotter, drier conditions across the West far more likely, the shortages that Arizona is navigating are likely a sign of more battles to come for all states sharing the Colorado River.
“If Arizona is to prosper into the next century, our focus needs to turn to what is essential for our future,” Arizona State University researchers Ferris and Sarah Porter wrote in the closing sentences of their 56-page report. “Our own survival is at stake.”●
Aerial photography with the help of Lighthawk Flights.