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Arizona's farms are running out of water, forcing farmers to confront climate change

A dry irrigation canal runs between fields in Maricopa, Ariz., on Aug. 18, 2022.
Matt York
A dry irrigation canal runs between fields in Maricopa, Ariz., on Aug. 18, 2022.

Cassy England is a fifth-generation farmer in Pinal County, Arizona. For decades, her family has been a part of the vibrant agricultural community in the southern part of the state, growing cotton, alfalfa and grains.

But this year, she's facing an unexpected challenge: She has to manage her crops with half of the usual water supply.

Agriculture in this area relies on the Colorado River, and a historic drought is causing severe shortages. Just as she was beginning to plan her planting season, England was notified that her farms would not get any water from the river and would have to make do with available groundwater instead.

"We had to cut back about 50% of our planting, which cuts back on income," England explained. "It'll cut us down at least 30%, probably, of our normal revenue at least. And so that's really going to be an impact."

Farmers across southern Arizona are among those in the West facing the brunt of climate change. The drought, worsening fire seasons, temperature swings and monsoons all impact their businesses, food production, utility costs and livelihoods.

I wonder how we got to be the bad guy.

Rural communities also tend to lean Republican politically, which can put them at odds with climate activists and environmental protection groups, which tend to be more aligned with Democrats. And the agriculture sector accounts for an estimated 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, putting farmers directly in the crosshairs of climate advocates.

But farmers in this region, across the political spectrum, say they also want solutions on climate issues now.

"We're not anti-environmental at all. That's how we make our living," said Craig Alameda, a farmer in Yuma from a longtime conservative family. "If we screw up making our living, then we don't have anything. So we have to take care of what we got."

Alameda is one of the thousands of farmers across the U.S. to tap into funds from the Agriculture Department's voluntary conservation programs.

"I can remember when we were younger: When you were considered a farmer, you were considered a conservationist," Alameda recalled. "We were the ones for open spaces and taking care of everything."

"I wonder how we got to be the bad guy," he said.

He has used some of the money for projects like lining ditches, a strategy that uses concrete to prevent water from seeping into the soil walls of a ditch.

Another producer in the region, Kaylee Jensen, who identifies as Republican, said she was also trying to tap into those conservation programs to help her winter vegetable operations in Yuma.

The Agriculture Department and farming advocates argue that the current programs are "oversubscribed," meaning more farmers and ranchers want to be a part of voluntary conservation programs than there is funding for the incentives.

These programs also received a historic $20 billion boost from Democrats in the Inflation Reduction Act last fall — dollars that Republicans in Washington are looking to claw back.

Regardless of the party, farmers want people to know that the money is being put to good use.

Jensen says that's something that has ripple effects through the economy that are not always noticed far from the farm.

"There's still a disconnect between some of these really large cities and you go to the grocery store and you get your produce. Where did that come from and how was it grown and able to get there?" she said.

A solution seems far off. River levels are still dropping

Decades-old agreements over water use among the federal government, states and Native American tribes resulted in an unintended overallocation of water. More water is allocated along rivers, streams and canals than the river actually produces, said Robert Medler, manager of government affairs for Arizona with Western Growers, a producer advocacy group. This is especially true with a worsening multiyear drought.

About 80% of the Colorado River goes toward agriculture, which means farmers will be among the first to take cuts.

"The solution is going to be hard," Medler said. "Everyone realizes that, and everyone's seemingly willing to come to the table. But everyone's situation is different, and that's where the conflicts arise."

The Interior Department in April released three proposals on how to allocate water. One option includes making no changes.

England, the farmer in Pinal County, has already had her access to river water cut off. She explains that when the issue was first raised in her community, there was a divide between some more conservative farmers who argued that there was sufficient groundwater and others who were more concerned with the drying canals.

But now that cuts are coming into place and groundwater is being pumped, she does not see those political divides anymore.

"Everybody kind of has the same opinion," England said. "It's just a problem and everyone kind of wants to fix it."

And the clock is ticking. England and many others won't have their water back for the foreseeable future.

"Every day that goes by without some sort of solution just makes the problem worse," Medler said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.