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More water cuts in the future for Arizona, threatening agriculture

As farmers in Yuma County, Arizona see water cuts, the amount of leafy greens they grow might be affected.
Posted at 9:04 PM, Jan 31, 2023

January 31 marks the deadline for seven states to propose a ban to reduce Colorado River water use. The Bureau of Reclamation requested a cut between 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Each acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons of water — enough to cover a football field with one foot of water.

Arizona is one area where water cuts have been steep in recent years, prompting concern among farmers particularly in Yuma County, where millions of pounds of produce are picked and packed each year.

The desert state is home to one of the most fruitful gardens in the U.S., and the roots of that labor run deep.

Ryan Lee began working in the fields at just 12 years old, and now he's carrying the family legacy down another generation as it continues to grow.

"That's all I've grown up wanting to do, watching my grandfather and my father," Lee said.

Lee Farms plants on approximately 4,500 acres and leases out 3,000 acres, perfectly planting produce in each parcel of land using some of the latest technology. The farm produces nearly 4 million cartons of produce per year.

"We grow everything from broccoli, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, mix lettuce, green leaf, red leaf; we transition to some kales," Lee said.

More than 175 different crops are grown in Yuma Valley. Roughly 90% of all winter leafy greens in the U.S. and 75 varieties of lettuce grown there, the crops are layered with history.

In 1909, the first of many dams was built on the Colorado River. Today, water diverted from the Colorado River irrigates thousands of acres of farmland, proudly coined "the salad bowl of the U.S."

Interior Department restricts water supply to multiple western states

Interior Department restricts water supply to multiple western states

The Colorado River supplies water to tens of million of people, but restrictions will reduce many western states' supply.

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The agriculture oasis in Yuma Valley puts food on the table and employs thousands of workers year around.

The fertile land and year-round sunshine helped cultivate Arizona's $23 billion-dollar agriculture industry, but as farmers look to the future, their biggest worry is water cuts for the thirsty industry. Experts say those cuts are inevitable, as drought persists and intensifies.

In 2021, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior declared the very first Tier 1 shortage for the Colorado River followed by a Tier 2 in 2022. It triggered historical water cuts, as water levels in Lake Mead dropped to an alarming low. Arizona took the biggest hit in 2023 with a 21% water cut from the Colorado River.

Chelsea McGuire, the director of government relations at the Arizona Farming Bureau, says water cuts in 2022 dried up roughly 50 to 60% of agriculture in Pinal County — an industry that produces $2.3 billion worth of economic revenue.

"I would call it critical because that means it's time to act," McGuire said.

The Reclamation Act gives Yuma farmers priority to water rights, but that power could be limited.

Bruce Gwynn, the president of the Yuma County Historical Society, says if significant water cuts were to hit Yuma Valley in the future, it would pose a threat to residents, workers and a nation that relies on the area for their produce.

"There's an old saying: 'Whiskey's for drinking; water for fighting,'" Gwynn said. "There'll be some fighting. We can give up some. How much? I don't know, but we can't give it all. It will kill Yuma to give it all up."

Lee says for him, his business is more than a money-making farm; it's about the workers he considers family and the opportunity for his children to continue a family legacy.

"We have generations of memories on these on these lands, and we've worked with generations of help and people that have come and gone through our doors," he said.

But McGuire says now is not the time to panic, adding that the water infrastructure investments last year were a step in the right direction.

"There's no silver bullet, so it's really hard for me to say, 'Here is the solution,'" McGuire said. "But instead, what I will say is that I believe there is a solution out there. I believe that that solution is going to be painful for everybody involved, and for it to be effective, it kind of has to be right. Cities have to feel the pain. Growth and development has to adjust. Agriculture has to adjust as well to a dryer future and to a drier reality."

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