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Farmers In Arizona Face Cuts Because Of Colorado River Water Shortages

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: For the first time ever, the federal government has declared a water shortage on the Colorado River. Two decades of drought means reservoirs that store runoff are depleted. And there's not enough water to meet demand. And farmers in Arizona are among the first who face significant cuts in water.

Ron Dungan with member station KJZZ in Phoenix explains.


RON DUNGAN, BYLINE: In a cotton field in Maricopa, a desert community south of Phoenix, farmer Kelly Anderson has equipment cleaning out a well.

KELLY ANDERSON: We've farmed this ground here in Maricopa since 1949. Granddad bought it in November of '49. And we've been here ever since.

DUNGAN: For decades, his family irrigated their crops with water from the Colorado River, more than 100 miles away. In 1968, Arizona finalized a deal with the federal government to build a huge system of canals called the Central Arizona Project, the C-A-P, or CAP, to bring water from the Colorado to the state's interior.

ANDERSON: We took our first CAP water, I believe, in the early '80s.

DUNGAN: In exchange for money to finance the project, the state agreed to have only junior rights in the Colorado River system. That means if a shortage was ever declared, Arizona's supply was vulnerable to cutbacks. So now the state is losing about 20% of what it would normally get.

That's not a surprise, Anderson says.

ANDERSON: I serve on the board of directors for our irrigation district. We monitor the lake levels monthly. And so we've seen this drought coming for the last 10 years.

DUNGAN: Lots of farmers have been getting ready to replace CAP water with groundwater from wells, like the one he's cleaning out.

Whether that's a viable long-term strategy depends on who you talk to, says Sarah Porter with the Morrison Institute, a nonpartisan think tank at Arizona State University.

SARAH PORTER: There are different philosophies about how arid regions should manage groundwater.

DUNGAN: Both farmers and cities have been resourceful, moving to drip irrigation and desert landscaping and finding ways to trade and borrow water, to store it underground, recapture and reuse it. That's likely to continue here and elsewhere.

PORTER: It's very likely that the Colorado River-using states will continue to adjust to less Colorado River water. How that will play out from project to project and state to state remains to be seen. It's really impossible at this point to predict.

DUNGAN: Kim Mitchell with Western Resource Advocates, a Colorado-based conservation group, says, whatever strategies Arizona and other states come up with, the shortage declaration signals a big change.

KIM MITCHELL: I think we need a new mindset. We need to live within our means - and that we are dealing with a new reality of a smaller river.

DUNGAN: Back in Maricopa, farmer Kelly Anderson says, even with more irrigation wells, losing water from the Colorado River means farmers are going to harvest fewer crops and extend the breaks they give their fields between plantings.

ANDERSON: We always fallow fields just because of what I do. I need to give the ground a rest. Back in the day, we never had enough wells to farm the whole farm. And so that was just the way it was. And we're - you know, every farmer's going to have to go back to that - fallowing some ground out, whether it's 30% or 40%.

DUNGAN: It's too early to say exactly what cutbacks in Colorado River water will mean for Arizona's agricultural economy. There are a lot of variables, including how global climate change affects the amount of snow and rain that falls in the river basin in future years.

For NPR News, I'm Ron Dungan in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "OUT OF TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ron Dungan