In Pinal County, Colorado River shortage is forcing growers to plant fewer acres

By Brandon Loomis | Arizona Republic

More than two decades of dry winters and drying Colorado River reservoirs will finally produce a long-feared landscape of drier farms in central Arizona starting this month.

Desert farmers, especially the 900 or more in Pinal County, start the new year with massively reduced allocations from the canal that delivers water hundreds of miles from the river.

Their irrigation districts are using state money to drill new wells to replace some of the losses with groundwater, another resource that’s at a premium in the fast-growing region. But it won’t be enough to offset the reductions, and so the growers who produce the region’s cotton, alfalfa and other crops are paring back their plantings across thousands of acres.

Noah Hiscox, a Coolidge farmer for 44 years, is among the growers who expect to fallow much of their land. He’s hoping he’ll be able to plant just a quarter of the 3,000 acres he farms. Fallowing is a common practice for soil health, but not at this scale.

“In the Bible, it tells you to rest your crops every seventh year,” Hiscox said. “That would be pretty wonderful if we had enough water to plant six-sevenths of our land.”

The shared pain he expects from fewer plantings will ripple across the county, through supply stores and equipment dealers, with on-farm layoffs and falling tax receipts.

Pinal County farms are losing river water this year because Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, dropped low enough to trigger cutbacks under a multi-state drought plan. Farm groups have said it could mean fallowing 30% to 40% of the acreage typically planted there.

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