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The entrance to RaT Farms, owned by Rodney and Tiffany Shedd, in Pinal County, Arizona.EXPAND
The entrance to RaT Farms, owned by Rodney and Tiffany Shedd, in Pinal County, Arizona.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times

Arizona Drought Plan Moves Forward, With More Money for Farmers

You can see the cotton fields from the porch of Tiffany Shedd's house, a one-story ranch with "WELCOME" spelled out in horseshoes above the doorway. The dirt has been zipped into long, low rows scattered with fluffs of cotton from a late harvest. From far away, the tufts of white look almost like snow.

Shedd, a lawyer who owns RaT Farms in Eloy with her husband, Rodney, was the first person to testify Tuesday afternoon during Arizona's very first hearing on drought planning legislation. During that hearing, before the House Natural Resources committee, the lobbying machine of Pinal County agriculture — and the support of sympathetic lawmakers — was on full display.

Despite an 11th-hour amendment requesting more money for Pinal County agriculture, the package of bills sailed through the House Natural Resources committee by a vote of 12-0 Tuesday.

Arizona has two days before the clock runs out on a federal deadline of January 31 for the seven Colorado River basin states, including Arizona, to agree on a Drought Contingency Plan, an effort to prevent catastrophic shortages on the Colorado River by taking less water from it.

That plan, hashed out over many months, redistributes water and money among cities, tribes, farmers, industries, and other Arizona water users.

Arizona is the only state that has to pass legislation in order to move forward with the Drought Contingency Plan — and as of Wednesday, it has less than 48 hours to do so.

The full House is expected to debate the proposed legislation Wednesday. The Senate Water and Agriculture Committee is also scheduled to hear corresponding bills Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, although their claims don't hold up under scrutiny, the Pinal County farmers, who are first in line to lose Colorado River water, have pushed hard and with considerable success for more funding to help them construct pumps and pipes to extract groundwater.

In addition to new funds that were proposed Tuesday, they have secured, in the past month, $5 million from the Central Arizona Project and $5 million from the state to help pay for groundwater infrastructure.

Critics, however, question the value of paying for these pumps and pipes to extract non-renewable groundwater, all on behalf of a select few.

"Ag has made massive contributions to the water community," Shedd told members of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Representative Gail Griffin and counts Rusty Bowers, Mark Finchem, and David Cook among its members. Agriculture in Pinal County fed people not just in Arizona but the world, she claimed, adding that it "possibly provides billions" of dollars in economic contributions.

Shedd, who according to her attorney's profile "has represented multimillion-dollar agribusinesses, natural resource stakeholders, and many of Arizona’s farmers and ranchers," was one of a dozen people who testified on HB 2540, one of several DCP-related bills.

That bill would create a fund for farmers in Pinal County to develop groundwater pumping infrastructure. The last-minute amendment to the bill, filed 48 minutes before the hearing began at 2 pm, set aside an additional $4 million for Pinal County farmers from the state, on top of $5 million already allocated.

The amendment also opened the door to other sources of funding as a bridge loan to farmers, to help them start developing groundwater infrastructure before federal funds to do so become available. Citing the uncertainty of the timing of federal grants, the bill directs the legislature to "consider other appropriations to be made available to the irrigation districts" for groundwater infrastructure once "reasonable attempts are made" to obtain federal money.

All but two of those people spoke in favor of the bill and the proposed additional funding. One of the people opposed was Sandy Bahr, head of the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

"Today we have a historic opportunity to move down a more sustainable path regarding our water future," Bahr told the committee. Pumping groundwater has irreversible environmental impacts, like fissures splitting the ground, she warned.

Arizona's drought planning, Bahr said, had come down to a "last-minute effort to appease a few interests."

Those interests — the Pinal County agriculture industry and their allies — describe themselves as stalwarts of the community and drivers of the surrounding economy. They argue that Pinal County agriculture is local — that the alfalfa grown there goes to dairies that supply you, reader, with milk. They point to a University of Arizona economic study, funded in part by Pinal County irrigation districts, which calculated that agriculture contributed $2.3 billion to the county.

That same study, however, found that 98 percent of the county's agricultural sales came from 203 farms, representing just 21 percent of farms in the county.

Critics contend that the agricultural industry has outsized influence over decision-makers. The Arizona Municipal Water Users’ Association, for one, disputes the $2.3 billion figure, calling it misleading. Its calculations suggest that Pinal agriculture pumps $611 million into the local economy — barely a quarter of the agricultural industry's own estimates.

According to 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of some 60,000 people employed in Pinal County, 500 worked in farming — and 450 of those were farmworkers and laborers. In other words, farming accounts for less than 1 percent of jobs in the county, although farmers in Pinal County point out that the economic effects go beyond that — the dealers who sell tractors, the mechanics who fix them, and other sectors are all driven by farming, they argue.

Arizona grows a good deal of alfalfa, spring durum wheat, and American Pima cotton, ranking 10th, third, and second in the nation, respectively. Its desert lands are also number four in the U.S. for pecan production, and second in the country for broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, and spinach. But in the categories where Arizona leads — alfalfa, dairy cows, Pima cotton — Pinal's production often trails that of other counties like Maricopa, Graham, and Yuma.

Although they don't tell the full story, campaign donations shed some light on the ties between the agricultural industry and the elected officials who largely support it.

During the 2018 election cycle, Bowers received donations from eight lobbyists at Veridus, a political firm in Phoenix whose ag-centric clients include Arizona Grain, Inc. and the United Dairymen of Arizona, campaign finance filings show. Basilio "Bas" Aja, a lobbyist with the Arizona Cattleman’s Association, donated too. Bowers also hails from a farming family.

Cook, who owns a ranch, also received donations from Bas Aja, along with Northside Hay Company, Veridus, the general manager of a Pinal County irrigation district, and the owner of Hickman’s, one of the biggest egg producers in the United States.

On Tuesday, committee members were largely sympathetic, lobbing softball questions.

If farmers have to fallow their fields, “does it have a ripple effect throughout the state?” Cook, who owns a ranch and whose district contains portions of Pinal County, asked Chelsea McGuire, the director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau.

"Absolutely," McGuire responded.

Bowers, addressing Brian Betcher, the general manager of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District in Pinal County, asked about irrigation efficiency. If farmers' systems lost just 4 percent of the Colorado River water they drew from the Central Arizona Project Canal, did that mean they had an efficiency rate of 96 percent?

"Yes," Betcher responded, adding that that metric was accurately measured.

But when Representative Kirsten Engel questioned Betcher harder, it turned out that water losses were actually closer to 15 percent.

And when Engel touched a nerve by asking about who really owned farms, and thus who would ultimately be using groundwater wells, Betcher fought back.

"We all know that a lot of these farms are owned by developers already,” Engel said. So, would groundwater infrastructure really benefit farmers? she wanted to know. “Or are we investing in future development?"

Betcher dodged the question, saying that agriculture was going to stay in Pinal County for the long term, and it would be using that groundwater infrastructure.

At Shedd's farm, the canal of the Central Arizona Project cuts west-east across the fields, where they grow 600 acres of durum wheat, most of which goes to Italy, and upland cotton, most of which is exported to China, according to Shedd.

She said that their farm didn’t receive direct subsidies for cotton or wheat, she said. But according to a database of farm subsidies, their farm received more than $2 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2017. Of that, $1.95 million was for cotton, and just under $100,000 for wheat. Shedd did not respond to a follow-up question about the subsidies.

As the sun melted along the horizon, Shedd said that she and her husband were considering growing hemp, which requires less water than cotton and wheat. And no matter what they grow, by the year 2026 at the latest, water will stop flowing through the canal that extends through their fields.

When that happens, Shedd says, “We’ll be pumping like crazy down here.”

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