Arizona’s water supplies are drying up. How will its farmers survive?

As the mighty Colorado River dwindles and cropland dries out, farming families face a grim choice: give up or somehow adapt.

You could almost visit Arizona without noticing it was a farming state. If you flew into Phoenix in an aisle seat, for instance, and spent your time in the city, you might not see it. But if you happened to drive south beyond the car shops and warehouses, across the sandy flats of mesquite and creosote, over dry arroyos, and past the groves of Saguaro cactus that really do stand like sentinels, you would eventually look up from the road to see fields of technicolor green. It may seem otherworldly after so many monochromatic miles, but irrigated agriculture has been a part of this desert landscape for more than 1,000 years.

Ancestors of today’s O’odham people devised complex systems of canals that made life tenable for generations. Long after they abandoned the Valley of the Sun for mysterious but not unimaginable reasons, European settlers picked up where they had left off. Jace Miller’s family showed up to homestead in 1919, and they’ve been around ever since.

At the age of 28, Miller is something of an oddity in a farming population that averages close to 60, even if he does sport the striped button-down shirt, blue jeans, Stetson and slight beer gut to match his elder peers. His father’s only son, he passed up a university scholarship to work the fields of cotton and hay his family leases. It’s also true that he prefers the lifestyle.

“The American farmer taught the world how to farm,” he said proudly in July as we blew past fields of flowering cotton in his Ford Super Duty pickup. “I want to carry on my family legacy, but, day to day, I don’t even know if I’m going to have a job.”

With midlife looming and a 100-year-old business to inherit, he’s facing the very real prospect of farming 1,700 acres of desert without water.

Jace Miller, 28, checks the pressure on a center pivot irrigation system on the Miller Farm.

Lacking deep snow in the Rocky Mountains to feed it, the Colorado River—which supplies some 40 million people and 1.75 million acres of irrigated land—has dwindled. Its enormous reservoirs have drained to half-empty, and research suggests that climate change will contribute to a further 20 percent drop in streamflow by 2050.

Meanwhile, desert populations are booming, and there’s no talk of limiting growth. States that rely on the Colorado have seen some of the country’s highest growth rates for years. In 2018, Phoenix added more new residents than any other U.S. city. Facing scarcity, the state’s longstanding economic and political order is shifting, with water and power flowing from its agrarian past to its urban future.

This past March, with demand for water outpacing supply, representatives from two countries, seven states and 10 Native American communities finished years-long negotiations over how to reduce use. The resulting Drought Contingency Plan aims to maintain the water level of Lake Mead, outside Las Vegas, and avoid critical water shortages along the river system.

The plan was hailed by many as a successful example of burden sharing, but cuts had to come from somewhere. They came mostly from the more than 500 farmers like Miller who work this dusty swath of central Arizona and who will bear the brunt of the first mandatory water cuts in 2020. By virtue of being last in a long line of priority that determines who gets water, they now monitor the level in Lake Mead, waiting for the ax to fall.

Arizona produces beef, milk, melons, beans, corn, and greens for winter salads nationwide. But here in Pinal County the bread and butter is cotton and hay—thirsty crops that help make agriculture the state’s largest consumer of water.

“Farms use as much as 8 feet [of water] per acre per year,” says Leslie Meyers, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Phoenix office. “Three homes might use 1 acre-foot.”

An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, and Arizona is entitled to suck 2.8 million acre-feet of them from the Colorado River each year. Of that allotment, agriculture consumes about 70 percent.

The Central Arizona Project canal below the Picacho Mountains in Pinal County, Arizona. The 336-mile canal diverts water from the Colorado River to it’s terminus near Tucson.

To get to Miller’s farm, river water is pumped for more than 200 miles along the Central Arizona Project canal, a feat of 20th-century engineering and funding that, once much of the state’s groundwater had been sucked nearly dry by the 1980s, allowed desert communities to flourish. Now, the government keeps close tabs on groundwater withdrawals and manages its canal water with a priority system that favors cities and tribes over agriculture in times of shortage.

Farmers, ranchers, and dairymen may use more water than the cities, says Julie Murphree of the Arizona Farm Bureau, but they do so to produce food and fiber that the state consumes—even if many people don’t realize it. Pinal’s growers are part of a $23-billion industry in Arizona. They rank 39th among the nation’s counties in value of products sold, and account for about 40 percent of the state’s milk and 45 percent of its beef sales while supporting all the shops, distributors, and seasonal workers that rely on them.

Most farms here are family-run operations, a third of which work fewer than 10 acres. And between 2012 and 2017, average expenses for these families increased by 22 percent while incomes fell by nearly a third.

“Problem is every year our rent goes up and our [water] allocation goes down,” Miller says.

His irrigation district, which sets the price for and delivers water along the canal, now sends him about half the amount it takes to grow a crop of alfalfa. To survive, he and others are leaving as much as 40 percent of their land unfarmed. The belt tightening has ripple effects: With fewer crops to sell, farmers buy less seed and some forgo new equipment.

That’s one way to eke it out. Another is an age-old tactic with an all-too-familiar result.

Farmer Terry Button jumps across a field ditch as he checks on flood irrigation on Ramona Farms, located on the Gila Indian Reservation.

Out near Coolidge, in a clearing between unplanted fields, two sweat-soaked well drillers clamber to unclog a 1,000-foot-deep water well in oppressive heat. As their vintage rig coughs black smoke, a plug—a greasy amalgamation of mud, sand, and rust—spews from the depths and into the light.

With the end of river water in sight, irrigators are hurrying to repair or deepen their groundwater wells. Tommy Hoover, who owns this rig, says his company works on as many as 120 wells a year, mostly in Pinal County. He expects that to ramp up as long as his customers can afford the six-figure price tag. “Some just give up,” he says, sometimes after sinking all they had into a well.