Climate change and drought threaten a way of life for Arizona farmers

Nancy Caywood recalls the days when the white tufts on the cotton plants on her family’s 255 acre farm popped out against the stark blue desert sky and their alfalfa fields were a sea of green yielding eight to ten cuttings a year.

“To walk out and smell the fresh hay, there’s nothing like it,” the third generation Casa Grande, Ariz., farmer told Yahoo News.

This year, thanks to the extreme drought experts say is exacerbated by climate change, all they’ve been able to successfully grow is weeds.

“My grandfather may have experienced rough times, but never a mega-drought. He’s never had to tear out his entire farm,” said Caywood. “We’re scared to death.”Nancy Caywood recalls the days when the whites on the cotton plants on her family’s 255 acre farm

A dry irrigation canal due to water shortages at farm in Casa Grande, Arizona, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (Cassidy Araiza/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The water situation is dire in the state of Arizona, which is facing its 22nd year of drought. Despite some from the annual monsoons, daily temperatures in the state are still hitting , and local rivers are running . In mid-August, the federal government announced its first-ever water shortage declaration for the Colorado River triggering cuts starting in January for the amount of water Arizona will be allowed to draw from it.

It’s a reality that scientists say is a result of a warming planet caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and Arizona’s farmers are facing what could be a make-or-break moment for their industry. But while agriculture is well represented in the state’s Republican majority legislature, many in the party have refused to acknowledge a link to climate change or pass bills to address it.

“They talk about drought, but don’t talk about the fact that climate change is intensifying the drought. They don’t acknowledge it relative to fires and the fact that fires are larger relative to climate change,” said Sandy Bahr, Grand Canyon chapter director for the Sierra Club. “They are just not in touch with science at all. Or any of the reports that come out that point to climate change as accerbating many of these issues.”

Arizona was once a national environmental leader. In 2006, then-Governor Janet Napolitano signed an executive order to create a climate action plan, one of the first states to do so. But there’s been a strong recoil since then. In 2010 the next governor, Jan Brewer, signed a law that any state agencies from monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, and it remains on the books today. In 2015, Arizona’s legislature prohibited cities from requiring any energy benchmarking in commercial structures. And in 2019, it passed a bill that prevents Arizona’s cities and towns from banning any natural gas or other fossil fuel hook-ups in buildings.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (L) in the Oval Office of the White House on August 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

The state’s current governor, Doug Ducey, came close to acknowledging climate change in 2019, nearly four years into his term, saying: “Nobody knows better than the governor of a state like Arizona, that has such an arid climate and has had to make so many plans and sacrifices to have the rich and abundant water resources, that we have that we have to pay attention to our environment.”

Despite its “arid climate,” agriculture is one of Arizona’s biggest industries. Yuma County, near the southern border, is often referred to as the country’s “salad bowl” due to its output of leafy greens in the winter time. But the impacts of the drought are likely to hurt farming in an outsized way.

Politicians in the state are considering desperate measures to help aid the industry, including an expensive water desalination alternative as well as a proposal to build a cross-state pipeline to drain water from the oft-flooded Mississippi River.

But agriculture is also a top consumer of water, using nearly 74 percent of the water in the state, according to a 2018 University of Arizona economic impact study, and that fact has created tension between municipalities and environmentalists who believe water conservation, not growing, should be the state’s main focus.

Arizona State Sen. Juan Mendoza, a Democrat, said the that have so far been considered by the legislature focus on conserving the “status quo” instead of a true solution. That’s because, he believes, the only real solution to Arizona’s problem isa water restrictions. Mendez himself has and co-sponsored a number of bills on in the state.

The deposition of minerals on previously submerged surfaces marked on the shoreline of the Colorado River during low water levels in Arizona, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. (Roger Kisby/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“No one wants to consider the idea of using less water. They want to throw money at a desalination plant. Now they are honestly considering moving water from another state,” Mendoza said. “They are just keeping Pinal County farmers happy. There’s not going to be one answer that solves the drought problem, or climate change or all of these environmental disasters.”

Agriculture nets Pinal County $2.4 billion in annual profits, according to Chelsea McGuire, Arizona Farm Bureau Government Relations Director. It’s anticipated to be one of the first regions in Arizona to see its access to Colorado River Water cut off and instead will have to rely on limited groundwater supply and rain. Water shortage is expected to create a $66 million in crop sales there and it’s causing farmers there to think deeply about the industry’s future. But there is also no obvious solution to their plight, says McGuire.

“No one is seeing this as temporary. We are seeing a dryer future… I think everything is going to have to change, from what I’m growing, to how I’m growing it, to where I’m growing it,” she said.

Paul Ollerton grew up farming in Pinal County. His father, uncle and grandfather were also farmers. He said this year he’s facing a tough decision: he doesn’t have enough Colorado River water to grow all of his crop, nor the capacity to pump enough of it from the ground.

Marana, ArizonaJuly 21, 2021A worker moves irrigation tubes on a farm in Pinal County. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“We knew for a long time that this day was probably coming and we just didn’t know when,” he said.

A partner and owner of Tierra Verde Farms in Casa Grande, Ollteron estimates he’ll have to leave nearly 25 percent of his field fallow this year due to lack of water.

“Without really sounding negative and a Debby Downer, I don’t see a lot of future— it’s a tough battle here,” he said.

Many farmers’ frustration lies largely with the local municipalities, who get first choice of the water and then allocate the remaining surface water to farmers. But not all of them lay the larger blame on climate change.

“I think there might be some things related to it but I’m not saying climate change is the way to address all of these issues,” Ollerton said. “I don’t think it’s totally responsible for what’s happening. I don’t think I buy some of the theories or science. I think it’s just weather patterns. I think we’re just in a dry cycle.”

Caywood finds it equally hard to know where to place blame, though she says many in her town have pointed a finger at farmers.

“People don’t respect where their food is coming from. This growing in the desert has been done for decades and we have ideal growing conditions,” she said. “Everybody asks if it’s climate change, I believe it’s cyclical. I believe it’s like climate change. … Whatever is happening it’s happening fast. I thought something like this would happen over 100 years — this is happening over 20.”

Cattle feed on an abandoned orchard as drought worsens near Red Lake on June 29, 2021 north of Kingman, Arizona. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Caywood says her family doesn’t expect to make any profits this year, and as that uncertainty plays out she’s watched the worry lines grow on her farmer son Travis’ 40-year-old face. She’s not sure what her family will ultimately do with their acreage but many neighbors have already sold their land to a new growing industry in the state: solar.

“I’m losing my toughness over this. I want to be resilient and bounce back from this, but unfortunately I am becoming an island surrounded by solar panels,” she said.

She said there’s a chance her farm could be the next sale.

“My dad passed away in January. I was on my way to the farm in April. I drove over the canal and there was low water in it and I just burst into tears knowing that that was my livelihood drying up,” she recounted.

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