Extreme drought creates unlikely farming allies in the Arizona desert

As control of the river water that allows desert farming shifts, a deep love of agriculture unites groups that have historically been at odds.

The canals that used to bring water from the Colorado River to the fields of Caywood Farms are dry after the Caywood family lost water rights due to the drought in their region of Arizona. In Arizona, the vast majority of the land is experiencing years-long drought.
Photograph by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Jace Miller has always known exactly what he wanted to do. He began working on his family’s farm south of Phoenix at the age of nine. When other boys were playing football, he was driving a tractor. He has grown to love the long, hot days and even the acts of God. At 30, he’s inheriting a century-old farming business, has a first child on the way, and says there are only two things that could force a career change: “For me, it’s bankruptcy or death. I’m a farmer.”

That commitment was put to the test last summer, when Miller found out he was going to lose the Colorado River water that sustains the thirsty alfalfa and hay he grows in Pinal County. That makes him like hundreds of other farmers in central Arizona—but Miller has found a way, for now, to keep farming: He’s doing it on land belonging to the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), which now holds rights to a sizeable portion of the river’s flow.

The broad and dusty basin between Phoenix and Tucson has emerged as an epicenter of the water crisis in the Colorado River Basin. Despite being more than 300 miles from the river, farmers here have since the 1980s depended almost exclusively on river water delivered by a canal. Today, years of extreme drought have slowed the once mighty river to a trickle. Water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell–massive reservoirs that feed the entire region–have fallen to record lows.

To avoid even more widespread water shortages, the United States Bureau of Reclamation will slash the amount of river water most central Arizona growers receive in 2022 by more than half—and eliminate it entirely in 2023. Of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River, Miller and other central Arizona farmers who hold the least-senior water rights will be among the first to be cut off.

A different story is unfolding on the nearby GRIC reservation. After winning a longstanding lawsuit over their water rights, the tribes have emerged from more than a century of quiet but brutal oppression to become one of the most powerful players in western water. To survive, Miller and a handful of other off-reservation farmers here are going where the water goes. And, if nothing else, he is at least relieved to be done waiting for bad news.

“We have to make this not only a profitable industry but also a sustainable industry,” he says optimistically at a bar outside Eloy, after a 12-hour day baling hay. “We can adjust our tillage practices. We’re reducing our carbon footprint. One thing we can’t do without in this state is water.”

A long-awaited shift of control

When it comes to the drought in the Southwest, there are no easy solutions. But one thing has been consistently clear: Agriculture uses far more water than any other sector. If the region is going to sustain its current rate of population and economic growth, water on fields must be put toward other uses. That is already happening.

An expanding Phoenix has swallowed more and more farmland—half of it in Pinal County has gone out of production since 1982, much of it replaced with housing developments. Miller’s own family has been part of the trend. In the early 2000s, his father and grandfather took advantage of a housing boom, sold most of the family farm, and moved further south, intending to buy land there. But rising land prices and water issues scuppered those plans. Today, Miller grows or harvests some 8,000 acres on contract around central Arizona.

In 2004, Pinal County farmers signed on to a federal agreement that they thought would secure Colorado River water for their crops until 2030, but shortages forced the Bureau of Reclamation to act seven years early. Some growers have responded by upgrading infrastructure and trying new varieties of crops that don’t use as much water. With about $50 million in government support, they are also refurbishing old wells and digging ever deeper in search of groundwater. And most farmers are cutting back how many acres they plant—fallowing as much as 40 percent of their fields. Miller, for his part, expects to fallow and lay off staff accordingly.

“It’s probably one of the most miserable things I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” he says.

For the Gila River Community, that 2004 water agreement, incredibly, capped a 79-year quest to regain a stolen resource. Beginning in the late 1800s, white settlers built a series of diversions and dams on the Salt and Gila Rivers to power and irrigate the Phoenix valley. They strangled the Native people’s water supply. As a result, agriculture essentially ceased on tribal lands in the 1870s, and the community suffered four decades of famine. In 1925, the Department of Justice first sued upstream users on behalf of the GRIC—a conflict that wasn’t fully resolved until 2004.

Under its terms, the GRIC was allocated 311,800 acre feet of Colorado River water a year (one acre foot is about enough to supply one or two U.S. homes annually)—the single largest contract in Central Arizona. Much of it was transferred from mostly white off-reservation farmers, who owed a sizeable debt for the construction of the canal that brings them river water. The settlement forgave that debt in exchange for moving the farmers to the front of the line for cuts if there were ever a shortage.

It has now arrived, and the GRIC is beginning a new chapter in which it controls the future of farming in central Arizona.

“The community has come full circle,” says David DeJong, director of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, a $900-million undertaking to pipe water throughout the reservation. Prior to the dams of the 1870s, tribal fields had been a regional breadbasket, feeding and clothing locals, including white ranchers and miners, and communities 300 miles away in Mexico.

Farming is a generational endeavor, though; land, equipment, and intimate knowledge are passed down and built upon. During most of the 20th century, while the GRIC went to court over its water rights, an agricultural tradition that had flourished in the desert for millennia nearly disappeared. Tribal fields lay fallow, and new generations turned to other labors. Finally, GRIC farms are reawakening.

“The community envisions a day when it is sending agricultural produce all across the world and it becomes the breadbasket once again,” DeJong says.

It seems unlikely, however, given predictions from climate models for yet hotter weather, that the central valley will ever regain that luster. GRIC farms fallowed significant acreage last season in solidarity with regional goals to shore up water stores, and the community leases its unused water to those who need it, including the City of Phoenix. In December, when the Colorado Basin states met to hash out a plan for leaving water in Lake Mead, the GRIC and other tribes contributed more than a quarter of the pledged savings.

No shortage of struggles

Brian Davis has lived all of his 63 years in the GRIC. From the driver’s seat of a dirt-caked pickup, he recounts the many jobs he’s tried: prison guard, mechanic, casino security officer, and three-term community council member. In 2006, an uncle convinced him to start his own farming operation, and it has been his passion ever since.

“If you don’t love it, don’t do it. If you love it, keep going,” he says. “I need to keep going.” Stout, with short black hair and a deeply creased face, Davis raises mostly alfalfa on 300 acres and has plans to expand.

For the past six years, he has depended on Miller to harvest and market his crop. “I had to consider the cost of diesel, oil, grease, twine, balers. It’s a lot cheaper to have someone else do it for you,” Davis explains. “We’ve had a good relationship.”

Today, off-reservation farmers have more recent generational knowledge of desert farming and more of the wealth needed to own, operate, and maintain commercial farming equipment. Miller works about 6,500 tribal acres and has built a kind of cooperative that pools resources among GRIC farmers for better bargaining power when buying seed and selling crops. The arrangement has been a win-win.

Although the 2004 settlement granted the tribes plenty of water, they so far lack the infrastructure needed to use it all. The GRIC can water only about 32,000 of 201,000 irrigable acres. Having largely ignored the desert tribes during its initial stabs at reclaiming the arid West, the U.S. government is now fulfilling its obligations to them by subsidizing new pipelines and ditches. Since the late 1990s, the GRIC has spent hundreds of millions of mostly federal dollars as part of a goal to bring water to 95,000 acres by 2030.

“There is no entity in the nation doing what Gila River is doing with irrigation,” DeJong says. “Ten years ago a lot of naysayers said the community could never do this.” Today, construction crews are grinding away and neglected acres are slowly coming into production.

Idling beside a field of green alfalfa, Davis points toward an isolated clump of leafy cottonwood trees, a telltale sign of a leak in the system. All over the reservation, older, sand-clogged canals and waterways are being replaced or lined with concrete to avoid losing precious water to seepage.

There also has been more government money for improvements on individual farms, but distribution has been slow. Davis waited 16 years for the USDA to level his land with a common laser-guided process. The regrading greatly improved how efficiently water floods across a field of hay. Flood irrigation requires little equipment, and is normal—if not particularly judicious—throughout Arizona.

A lack of people power

Labor is also in short supply, as it is across the United States. Everywhere, experienced farmers are aging out and new generations show little interest in the rough work.

“We have labor shortages all the time,” says Stephanie Sauceda, who manages the GRIC-owned Gila River Farms. “The farm tried to build its own crew but we couldn’t get people to stay here to learn the process.” With the help of Miller and other contractors, she raises cotton, alfalfa, hay, barley, olives, and citrus on 10,000 acres.

While Miller is not quite a unicorn, he is something of a black sheep among his peers, he says. Despite the sting of losing water rights, so far fewer than 20 off-reservation farmers work directly for the GRIC. “The tribes have all the water, which is a very controversial issue for guys off the reservation,” he says.

Sauceda’s farm is a community gem that generates income, teaches skills, and shines a light on the tribes’ proud agrarian ancestry—they produced the first irrigated agriculture in North America. Even with the massive water settlement, though, Sauceda holds no illusions that the future will be easy.

“I work with farmers outside the community and I see them struggling, selling their land and losing cattle,” she says. “There are houses going up all around us, and that’s taking away from the small farmers, and I think that’s sad.”

Alfalfa is Gila River’s most lucrative crop, sold primarily to local ranchers and dairies. During rodeo season, cowboys buy tons of horse feed from the GRIC. “As long as we have sufficient water to produce a good alfalfa crop, then people will come to us,” Sauceda says. If those communities dry up, the tribes’ success will depend on expanding other off-reservation relationships, some as far afield as the Middle East and Asia, where she already has buyers.

A few GRIC farmers are growing beans and other traditional foods that require less water and offer some semblance of local food security. But most are getting their footing amid deep uncertainty and are sticking with safe bets—alfalfa, cotton, sometimes wheat.

Miller knows working for the tribes might just be buying him time until drought forces him out of farming completely, and at the bar in Eloy, he wavers between despair and inexhaustible pride.

“The worst thing about farmers is that we are eternal optimists. We always say next year is going to be better,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re that resilient or that ignorant.”

Regarding his tribal business partners and their contentious water settlement, “Thank God they won,” he says. They too are farmers, after all. “On a positive note, [tribal] land is never going to be developed. It will be agriculture forever.” That may be the expectation, but Miller knows better than most how plans can dry up in the desert.

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