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Water expert: Yuma's threat to its supply from within
Water is certainly a “hot button” for Yuma, evidenced by the reaction to a controversial bill in the Legislature that would have authorized establishing authorities that could buy and sell water.
HB 2338, currently on hold in the House Agriculture and Water Committee, was seen by many in Yuma as an effort by thirstier parts of the state to grab this area's share of water from the Colorado River.
But the real threat to the future of Yuma's water rights lies within the community, warned Wade Noble, a water attorney who represents several of the irrigation districts in Yuma County.
“It isn't the barbarians outside the gate,” he said. “It's the barbarians already inside.”
Noble was one of three speakers about water issues at this month's Know Yuma Inside and Out, held Thursday at Yuma City Hall.
“The question isn't about someone taking away our water rights. It's who gives them away. If there's something they want bad enough, someone will transfer their water.”
That something is money, lots of it.
“Outside interests are looking at water transfers,” Noble said. “Some of them have big money — that's money not with an ‘M' but a ‘B.'”
As farmers age and their offspring don't want to follow in their footsteps, that money can be tempting, he said.
Yumans think of water as the lifeblood of the community as it's used to produce billions of dollars in food and fiber, production that fuels the local economy, said Noble.
“But when the money starts getting really good, we will see farmers in the community who say they're better off financially to not farm. It's happening elsewhere and it will here. It's the wave of the future. But if farmers stop farming, it impacts the entire community.”
John Boelts, a produce grower, said Yuma County traditionally accounts for one-third of Arizona's $12.4 billion agriculture industry. That puts Yuma at $4 billion to $5 billion.
Farmers here employ 30,000 to 60,000 workers at the peak of the season, grow 175 different crops and produce fresh vegetables for millions of people in the United States and Canada. And nearly every business here supports agriculture or benefits from it.
“Its loss would be detrimental to everyone here,” Boelts said.
According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, California is to receive 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year, Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet and Nevada 300,000 acre-feet. A good portion of Arizona's share goes to irrigate crops in Yuma County through senior water rights to the area's irrigation districts.
Yuma County Water Users Association, which delivers water to the Yuma Valley, has the best rights in the West, said manager Tom Davis. He explained that through compacts reached by settlers in the valley, water is “glued” to the land. Even as some of the land has become covered with houses, the water still remains tied to it.
“That means farmers probably couldn't sell the water rights,” Davis said.
He also explained that the Central Arizona Project carries about 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. But as a lower priority, CAP would the first to have its water reduced in a shortage.
That shortage is a very real possibility, Noble noted.
There are indications that the Colorado River was over-allocated. Years of drought and increased demand for water have put more pressure on the resource.
Noble said a study indicates that in the next 60 years, there could be a shortage of between 1 million and 6 million acre-feet of water a year over the entire Colorado River basin. The probable actual shortage would be about 3.2 million acre-feet, with Arizona absorbing 1 million acre-feet of that shortage.
One argument is that the shortage could be made up through conservation, said Noble, but agriculture in Yuma “probably exercises some of the best water conservation in the world. There's no wasted water here.”
Davis said he believes future water supplies will come from other places before Yuma County, such as the Colorado River Tribes upriver.
“But we need to remain vigilant. We were desert before and we would be desert again if the water is taken away.”