Yuma Mesa Farmers Enter into Fallowing Pact with CAP

2013-09-16 18:23:04


Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District has entered into an agreement with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District for a short-term pilot fallowing program.

It is not a water transfer, emphasize board members of the district that provides irrigation water for approximately 15,000 acres of farmland that is mostly planted in citrus and alfalfa. Through the agreement, landowners on the mesa will voluntarily fallow a total of 1,500 acres of land. It is a three-year program with a possible three-year extension.

The saved water will not flow through the Central Arizona Project canal to Phoenix. In fact the agreement spells out that CAP will not divert and use the water conserved.

Rather, the object is for the conserved water to be retained in Lake Mead, increasing the supply and elevation of the reservoir shrunk by the drought that has gripped the Colorado River watershed for the last 14 years.

It also will serve as a pilot program to determine the actual amount of water conserved through rotational fallowing.

While acknowledging that the program will meet with criticism from some elements of the community, district board members maintain it actually will be good for the farmers and in the long run benefit the community. Furthermore, it is not unprecedented.

There was a pilot program from 2008 to 2010 in which about 500 acres on the mesa were fallowed through an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to keep water in Lake Mead.

Also over the last few years, 5,000 acres of irrigated farmland on the mesa have been converted to housing. The water that would have gone to irrigate those acres now is available to CAP.

And a water rights settlement approved by Congress in 1984 entitles the Ak-Chin Community in the Santa Cruz Valley of Southern Arizona to 50,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District.

“We realize we’re only one act of Congress or the Legislature from losing our wet water,” said Mark Spencer, one of three district board members. “Yuma County may think the bulls eye (from outside interests seeking water) is on it, but we know it’s squarely on us.”

Therefore, the district feels it’s better to be proactive and cooperative, he said.

The agreement has nothing to do with HB 2338, a controversial bill stalled in the last legislative session that would have established water authorities with the power to buy and sell water, said Pat Morgan, manager of the district. “We were working on this long before it came up.”

The program, which goes into effect in January, calls for approximately 1,500 acres of land on the mesa to be fallowed. That is less than 10 percent of the current irrigated land within the district, Morgan said. Guidelines stipulate that the land to be fallowed has to have produced irrigated crops in four out the last five years, no one landowner can put more than 18 percent of their land into the program and after three years they would need to put different land into the program if it is continued.

Participating landowners will be required to maintain weed and dust control on their fallowed land, maintain their ditch structures for downstream users and continue to pay the district assessments on their land, Morgan said.

They will be paid a base rate of $750 per acre of fallowed land in 2014, with the payment to increase each year.

Spencer maintains that the program may well save or at least prolong citrus farming on the mesa.

He explained that farming on the mesa with its sandy soil is much different than farming in other areas of Yuma County. It takes twice the water, 9 acre-feet or more, to produce a crop on one acre of land. And the soil has a number of diseases and microorganisms – problems that are best dealt with by leaving the land fallow and dry for a couple of years.

“But if we’re not farming the land, there is no revenue,” Spencer said. “Fallowing the ground will save water in the system and get us some revenue off the land in the meantime. And we will have more successful replanting of the groves.”

He noted that the citrus industry is declining. “I think this is a tool to extend the life of the industry on the mesa.”

One concern about fallowing is the third-party impact on support businesses and labor.

Spencer, however, thinks that impact will be minimal because of the limits on participation by each landowner. And in the end, the mesa will have a healthier citrus industry because farmers will have more revenue to replant their aging trees and stay in business.

Tom Davis, manager of the Yuma County Water Users, said his board “certainly is not opposed. I don’t think it has any bearing on the other water districts. We can’t dictate to someone whether they can use their water.┬áIt’s strictly between the two entities. This is a perfect example of a willing seller and willing buyer.”

He continued: “Fallowing may be more profitable to farmers if the land needs to be rested for a couple of years. If the trees need to come out, they may participate in the program instead of planting alfalfa.”

Morgan said that because the agreement is not a water transfer, it is not subject to the usual regulatory process. That’s important to get the program going by Jan. 1.

The program will result in an estimated water savings of about 9,000 acre-feet a year.

“It may not be a lot of water,” concluded Spencer. “But it may be enough to ward off a 50-50 percent chance of a declared water shortage on the Colorado River in 2016.”