By Will Stone for KJZZ
By 2017, chances are a water shortage will be declared on the Colorado River. If that happens, Arizona will lose a share of its water — more than any of its neighbors.
Farmers will feel the squeeze first and that is forcing some tough decisions about how to keep agriculture viable as the drought deepens.
Brian Betcher is one of the people on the front lines of drought preparation. On a windswept afternoon in late spring, he cruised a labyrinth of waterways, lined with ripening melons and corn.
Betcher has been spending a lot more time recently concerned about that very issue. He manages the more than 200 miles of canals and pipelines that make up the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District.
At the edge of the canal, Betcher stops at a recently installed pipe spouting water.
“The challenge we are looking at as we get to 2017 is that we need to maximize our ability to get this groundwater into our canal system,” said Betcher.
In 2017, Arizona will face a 75-percent chance of its first cutback in Colorado River water, depending on the water level in Lake Mead. Central Arizona farmers will be among the first to take that hit.
In recent years, 50 to 70 percent of the water flowing into this irrigation district has come from the Colorado.
Betcher expects that to drop to only 20 percent after a tier-one shortage on the Colorado. They will use groundwater to make up as much of the difference as possible, which is what farmers relied on before the Central Arizona Project piped in water from the river.
This uncertainty — coupled with the loss in overall water — will force growers to adjust. After all, groundwater is more expensive.
“There’s going to be some tough decisions the landowners will have to make,” said Betcher. “Just because we can pump 200,000 acre feet a year, do we want to do that in the long term because of what that will do your resources below ground?”
That will be a question that many Arizona water managers and farmers will face, if the drought continues.
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