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Water Wars

Western Farmers Fighting For Their Share

By Brent Murphree print email

“What makes the desert beautiful
is that somewhere it hides a well.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French author


The Western Cotton Belt has seen an enthusiastic return to cotton. Early predictions for planted acres were 27 percent over last year, according to the National Cotton Council’s planting intention survey.

Greater than normal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, which supplies water to the San Joaquin Valley, pushed producer expectations in the West.

Unfortunately, the moisture went north of the watersheds for parts of Arizona, all of New Mexico and the Lower El Paso Valley. As the window for planting began to shrink, those areas realized that the needed water might not be coming.

On top of the reduced water supply, regulatory issues continue to impact producers throughout the Western Cotton Belt.

The breadth of water issues across the Belt this year is staggering, and, while the number of total acres of cotton will be up in the arid West, producers are still forced to manage their water carefully at many different levels.

Water Problems Near El Paso

In the Lower El Paso Valley of Texas, the situation is really bad, according to Tornillo farmer Craig Ivey. The heavy snows in Colorado did not fall far enough south to impact the watershed of the Rio Grande, where Ivey gets all of his water.

Producers south of El Paso have been allotted only three and a half acre-feet for their crops this year, far less than necessary to grow cotton at optimum levels in the area.

Robert Rios, Water Master for the El Paso County Water Improvement District, says the situation is very bleak.

“It’s not good, unless we get a lot of water,” he says.

There is potential for some water as the monsoon flow approaches in early July. But, it is the snowpack in the southern Rocky Mountains that is the safety net for the Rio Grande Valley cotton farmer. That window of opportunity is gone this year.

The reservoir that stores and supplies water for the cotton-growing regions of central New Mexico and the El Paso Valley is Elephant Butte. According to Ramon Alvarez, who farms in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico, Elephant Butte Reservoir still has some water in it, but the supply is low, and irrigation water from that particular source is limited.

Alvarez can supplement his river allotment with well water on most of his land. But, he has about 100 acres of leased land that he is not able to farm because there are no wells on site.

“Our cotton doesn’t look bad,” Alvarez says.

He has had little insect pressure so far. He says his fuel costs are tremendous, but with the good prices for his crop he should be able to overcome high-cost fuel.

Like Alvarez, and despite the water situation, Rios is still optimistic.

“It’s not good, but if they stay in their water budget, they can make it,” he says about producers south of El Paso. He also points to expectations of more normal precipitation levels.

“There’s hope,” he laughs nervously.

Missed Chances In Eastern Arizona

Farmers in eastern Arizona have also missed the needed snowpack on their watershed along the Arizona- New Mexico border.

Because of a water settlement with the Gila River Indian Community and low precipitation, there is pressure to reduce the six acre-feet of water the producers in the Safford Valley re-ceived for last year’s crop.

Central Arizona, including Mari-copa, Pinal and Pima Counties, has the advantage of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which brings water from the Colorado River. The heavy snows in Colorado and Utah have benefited the watershed for users of Colorado River water.

Colorado River Levels Improving

According to Ron Rayner, who farms west of the Phoenix metro area and in California, lake levels are up on the Colorado system, and the anticipated restrictions from the CAP will not occur in the immediate future.

“In general,” he says, “the situation on the Colorado looks much better.”

As a former board member for the CAP, he should know.

With Lake Powell, in northern Arizona and southern Utah, rising about a foot each day through July, it should take a lot of pressure off the demands placed on Colorado River water. Several ski resorts in the watershed were planning to operate until the Fourth of July weekend.

This is great news for those who rely on the river to supplement local water from small districts in central Arizona. But, it doesn’t mean that farmers can become complacent.

Bryan Hartman, who farms in Pinal County and sits on the board of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, still has concerns about availability.

“We have lots of water,” he says.

However, he wants his fellow producers to be smart and plan well for their water use.

With strong commodity prices, he doesn’t want farmers to overdip into the water allotment by double-cropping high water-use grain crops.

“We need to be careful not to use too much water and to stay within the allotment,” he says.

Hartman is also encouraging the district to look at ideas that can supplement the cost of water delivery. The board has recently taken a look at generating hydropower in the gravity-fed canals of his district.

“If we can save a few bucks, that’s good,” he says.

Water Efficiency Promoted

Both Rayner and Hartman agree that producers need to be aware of their water use and keep looking for ways to conserve and improve their water efficiency. This includes drought tolerance tests for cotton varieties and water delivery methods, including basin leveling and drip irrigation.

Riverdale, Calif., cotton farmer, Dan Errotabere, is a board member of the Westlands Water District. Although his water district has seen an abundant supply of water from its source in the Sierras, the district is only able to supply an 80 percent allotment of water to its producers.

“We’ve had a record supply of water this year,” Errotabere says.

But, not enough to ensure a full 100 percent of the farmers’ guaranteed water allotment because of concerns regarding endangered fish species in the Sacramento Delta in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley.

Can Court Action Help?

In June, the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority, a cooperative of central California water associations, announced plans to file suit asking a federal court to stop the Department of the Interior from cutting back water allotments from the Sacramento Delta.

In an April 20 press release, the California Department of Water Resources says that it is difficult to achieve the full allotment because of pumping restrictions in the Delta. The pumping restrictions are meant to protect the fish from being killed as they are sucked though the pumps.

Brent Murphree is the Cotton Board’s Regional Communication Manager for the West. Contact him via email at bmurphree@cottonboard.org. Brent resides in Maricopa, Ariz.


Most Important Priority:
Is It Fish Or Food And Fiber?


Water In The Desert West

New Mexico and El Paso Valley
• Low water in the watershed.
• Limitations on water use.

Arizona
• Moderate water in the watershed.
• Supplemented by Colorado River
  except in the East.

California
• Abundant water in the watershed.
• Limitations on water use due to
  environmental pressure.

Ted Sheely, a cotton producer who also sits on the Westlands Water District board, questions the priority of fish over food and fiber in the incredibly productive San Joaquin Valley of California.

“A non-native species, the striped bass, eats Delta smelt,” Sheely says.

Populations of striped bass have increased in the Delta, leading many, including Sheely, to question if the pumps are doing as much damage as the striped bass.

The endangered fish issue is just one of the many regulatory demands that face the California cotton farmer. Restoration of waterways, expansion of the Clean Water Act and lawsuits from environmental groups all take time and focus from growing the crop.

“We have continued to take an incremental death of a thousand cuts,” Sheely says.

But, protecting farmers’ interests is a way of life in the Western growing regions. Sheely is a champion of HR 1837, the San Joaquin Water Reliability Act. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA21), would restore efficient operation of the region’s water infrastructure, guaranteeing water to producers.

“The game is on for getting legislation passed to protect farmers’ interests,” he says.

The good story is that California cotton producers have abundant water this season for increased cotton acreage. Producer Dan Errotabere says that he hopes that the San Joaquin Valley still has the ability to harvest a large cotton crop in a timely manner.

“Our capacity to harvest has gone down with the reduced cotton acreage,” he says.

It may tax capacity of the remaining gins and existing harvest equipment.

Sheely did not express the same concern. With tomato prices weak in the Valley and cotton prices high, Sheely says that he would have planned to plant more cotton had he known water would be this abundant.

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