Irrigation Leader
Arizona Edition,  Featured,  Interview

Tom Davis: Preserving and Strengthening Arizona’s Desert Ag

The Yuma, Arizona, area produces the vast majority of North America’s winter produce, including leafy green vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and celery. The Yuma area also produces high-quality desert durum wheat, citrus, melons, cotton, and a variety of seed crops. Most of the irrigable acreage in the area is double or triple cropped. This production relies on Colorado River water delivered by entities such as the Yuma County Water Users Association (YCWUA). The water interests of the agricultural community in the area are defended by the local irrigation districts’ boards of directors and by organizations such as the Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition (YCAWC) and the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona (ABWC). Direct diverters of Colorado River water have come under increasing risk of suffering reduced supplies or losing them altogether due to the severe 20year-long drought in the Colorado basin and the rapid urbanization of central Arizona. In this interview, YCWUA General Manager and ABWC President Tom Davis tells us about efforts to preserve and strengthen Yuma’s agriculture in this challenging landscape. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Tom Davis: I have been the manager of the YCWUA since 2007. The YCWUA was a member of the ABWC, so as manager, I became an ABWC board member. Eventually, I became the ABWC’s vice president, a position I held for several years. I was elected president when the previous president, Bill Plummer, stepped down. I’ve been president of the ABWC for 6 years. 

Irrigation Leader: Please describe the YCWUA. 

YCWUA construction crews upgrade a turnout structure with a larger gate.

Tom Davis: The irrigation project I manage was one of the first projects built in the West after the Reclamation Act of 1902. We’ve been in operation since 1910. As a water users association, we are a private nonprofit company. That differs from the irrigation districts that exist throughout the West, which are quasimunicipalities and an arm of state governments. The YCWUA was incorporated in 1903 along with a sister irrigation association, the Salt River Valley Project Association, which subsequently morphed into the Salt River Project. Our bylaws are almost identical and were written by the same lawyer. The YCWUA petitioned the Reclamation Service, the precursor of the Bureau of Reclamation, to build a project in the Yuma Valley. The first structure ever built across the Colorado River was Laguna Dam. It is a check structure that stacked up the flow of the river so that it could be diverted into a 9‑mile canal system, then through a siphon tunnel under the Colorado River from the California side into Arizona and into an open-canal system that delivers the water into the Yuma Valley. Laguna Dam was later replaced by Imperial Dam as the primary diversion structure.

Irrigation Leader: What crops do the farmers in your association produce?

Tom Davis: We deliver water year round and divert more water in the wintertime than we do in the summertime. The primary cash crops in the valley are cool-season crops: leafy green vegetables, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and other produce crops. These are grown between Labor Day and March 1. The Yuma area provides 85 percent of the produce consumed in the United States and Canada during the winter months. We also raise some of the best desert durum wheat in the world, most of which is exported to make pasta. The wheat is sowed following the produce harvest and is harvested in early June. We also have some summer crops, including rotational-type crops, cotton, melons, and sorghum.

Irrigation Leader: How many acres do you irrigate?

Tom Davis: The YCWUA irrigates 45,000 acres in the Yuma Valley. The initial size of the project that Congress approved in 1904 was about 53,000 acres. Urban development has taken over some of those acres. Farmland in the valley sells for about $39,000 an acre, and we have a planning and zoning agreement with the cities that restricts further housing development in the farmland areas. Most of the areas zoned for development are now occupied by homes because of current low interest rates and because people are fleeing California. Unless our agreements are changed, the rest of the valley will remain in agricultural production, so I don’t expect our number of irrigated acres to change. Approximately 175,000 acres are irrigated in the greater Yuma area. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you give us a sense of how much produce your area produces?

Tom Davis: At the peak of produce harvest, which is mid-October through mid-February, a truck loaded with produce leaves the Yuma area every 90 seconds. There are four other irrigation districts in the Yuma area with the same cropping patterns, and the same produce is also grown in Mexico, which borders us to the west and the south, and in the Imperial Valley of California, but all the cooler plants, processing plants, and salad-bagging plants are in Yuma. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the history of the ABWC.

Tom Davis: The ABWC was formed in the mid‑1970s, after the Arizona legislature realized the rate at which groundwater was being depleted. Most farming and cities in the central parts of the state, including Pinal County and parts of Maricopa and Pima Counties, were served by groundwater. The users were mining ancient groundwater, which was not being resupplied, and to impose some structure on the withdrawal of that groundwater, the legislature decided to establish a groundwater code. The users of that groundwater included cities, agricultural interests, and mining companies. The cities were beginning to grow, leading to a lot of competition for groundwater. The ag folks realized that they needed to form an organization to defend their interest in extracting this groundwater from the competing mining and city interests. The original intent of the ABWC was to protect the groundwater interest associated with agriculture and agribusiness. The groundwater code was put into effect in 1978–1979. The ABWC has continued to represent the ag and agribusiness interests in the three central counties I mentioned as well as the interests of the direct diverters from the Colorado River. The mission of ABWC is to represent irrigated agriculture and agribusiness by working to promote and protect water resources in the state of Arizona and to actively educate, support, and promote all aspects of water, agriculture, and agribusiness.

Irrigation Leader: What are the top issues of the ABWC’s members? 

Tom Davis: The megadrought in the Colorado River basin. Obviously, the river members—the direct diverters from the Colorado River—are being threatened by the extended drought as well as the desire of urban users to transfer more water from the river to the more populated areas of Arizona. The effort to move water rights from the river into the Phoenix area is being supported by Wall Street hedge fund companies seeking to profit from Arizona’s water shortage. Arizona is able to use its full 2.8‑million-acre-foot consumptive use right from the Colorado River because of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The CAP takes about 1.6 million acre-feet into central Arizona for its municipal use contractors, leaving 1.2 million acre-feet for the agricultural river diverters. Most of that is diverted into the Yuma area, with approximately 300,000 acre-feet going to the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) and some going to Mojave County upstream of Yuma. The CAP contractors are junior to other water users in the lower basin. Their supplies will be reduced first, and they will be hit hardest by the drought. Another issue created by the drought is the reduction of hydropower generation given the lower levels of Lake Mead. This power is used throughout Arizona. 

Irrigation Leader: What will occur if the drought continues? 

Tom Davis: The 2007 guidelines for management of the Colorado River established target elevations in Lake Mead. If Lake Mead levels dropped to these target elevations, diversions out of the lake would be reduced. When Congress funded the construction of the CAP, one of the conditions was that CAP contractors’ water rights would be junior to those of all other diverters in the lower basin states. This means that when Lake Mead elevations reach those target levels, CAP has to reduce the amount of water it pumps to its contractors. It’s pretty evident that Lake Mead will drop to the first target elevation of 1,075 feet by January 1, 2022, triggering a shortage declaration and a tier 1 pumping reduction. CAP pumping in 2022 will have to be reduced by about 320,000 acre-feet. It’s possible that if there is insufficient inflow during the 2021–2022 winter, Lake Mead will hit a tier 2 shortage by January 1, 2023, requiring a further reduction in pumping of 400,000 acre-feet. That would mean a reduction of more than 700,000 acre-feet in CAP’s pumping from the river over a period of 2 years, which would certainly affect CAP’s contract users, namely the growing cities in the Phoenix area. Those of us on the river have a more senior priority position and will continue to divert our allotted amounts under tier 1 and 2 reductions. There are discussions among some interests about whether these diversion priorities should be changed. When agricultural crops are as valuable and critical as those produced in the Yuma area and when this area is the only source of leafy green produce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and other crops during the winter, I suspect that the demand will continue to exist and we’ll continue to divert water to grow these crops. 

Irrigation Leader: How important is collaboration among all the water users on the Colorado? 

Tom Davis: With a drought of this magnitude, not only is collaboration necessary among agriculture water users, but it is essential among all water users in the state and among all water users in the three lower basin states. The most recent collaboration effort was the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), the goal of which is, through a variety of means, to keep the elevation of Lake Mead above the tier 1 target elevation of 1,075 feet. Without the water that the DCP has preserved in Lake Mead over the last 4 years, the tier 1 elevation would have been reached 2 years ago.

YCWUA construction crews upgrade a turnout structure with a larger gate.

The other pressing issue is that the 2007 interim guidelines, establishing the operation of the river, will expire in 2026. We’re in the process that Reclamation calls reconsultation, which involves reviewing and possibly revising these guidelines for the next 20 years. This will be a concentrated effort by all basin states and Reclamation over the next 4 years. The new guidelines must be in place by the end of 2025. A lot of coalitions have been established within and among various interests in the basin states to revisit the guidelines. The final guidelines will be established by Reclamation and will be signed off on by the basin states. Obviously, we don’t know what presidential administration will be in place at that time. Many folks who are working on the new guidelines today will have retired by then. It’s going to be an interesting process, particularly because we are right in the midst of dealing with the megadrought. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to Congress?

Tom Davis: Congress can spend money, but it can’t make it snow. The Colorado is a snow-dependent river. We’re entirely dependent on snowpack in the Wind River range in Wyoming and the Rockies in Colorado. The primary effort of Congress at this time should be to support the necessary rehabilitation of the aging irrigation infrastructure that has been in place for 100 years.

We’re pressing Congress at this time for funding for one particular feature in the lower basin, Imperial Dam. Imperial Dam was built in 1937. It’s been operated and maintained by all the entities that divert water from the dam. Imperial Dam diverts about 5.9 million acre-feet a year. A million and a half acre-feet goes to the country of Mexico; the rest goes to Southern California and southwestern Arizona for crop production and municipal use. Some features of the dam need major rehab work. Reclamation has designed the necessary work and has cost estimates for the work. Today, the prices of steel, concrete, lumber, and fuel are rising on a daily basis. The work is scheduled and has to be done in the next 5 years. Irrigation projects and associations like mine don’t have the kind of capital necessary to pay the unbelievable costs of rehab in a short period of time. We’re talking about $60 million or maybe upward of $100 million at current costs. We’re petitioning Congress as it discusses and debates infrastructure needs. The numbers being kicked around in DC are in the trillions of dollars. Our needs at Imperial Dam are tiny compared to those numbers. It should be possible to establish a loan process through which the repayment entities can have access to low-interest 40‑year loans from Reclamation to pay for the rehabilitation of Imperial Dam. The Ferguson Group is assisting the YCAWC with congressional action.

Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Tom Davis: One positive part of the effort to deal with the drought situation is the inclusion of the tribes. Over the last 20 years, the Gila River Indian Tribes (GRIT) have been able to get access to Colorado River water through their water rights settlement. The GRIT have been cooperative in leasing their water to maintain levels in Lake Mead and to address other water needs in central Arizona. There is also pending legislation that would allow the CRIT, which are located along the Colorado River near Parker, Arizona, to lease their water in the future. The leasing of their water really would help the CRIT’s economic situation. The cooperation between the tribes and the other diverters is a recent and positive effort. It further defines Indian water rights and how those rights can be used in conjunction with other rights to solve major water shortages. 

Recorded history in the Southwest only dates back 250–300 years. We’ve only been irrigating to a great extent for 100 years. We don’t know how long droughts can last in the Southwest in geologic terms. This drought has lasted for more than 20 years. Megadroughts could last for 50 years or 500 years. The drought could also end with a few great snowpack years. If you look back in the historical record, 1862 was an unbelievable water year. Large atmospheric rivers that developed in the Pacific during the months of January and February of that year caused flooding from the West Coast to the front range of the Rockies. The Central Valley of California was 65 percent covered with water for a short period of time. The entire Colorado River storage system would be filled with one such event. Over the past 20 years, and particularly over the last few years, a lot of people have moved to the Southwest. The Phoenix area is experiencing unbelievable growth. Whether that growth can be sustained will be determined by the availability of water.

Most groundwater aquifers in Arizona are nonrenewable. We’ve been pumping groundwater unbelievably hard in Arizona for years, and that pumping is increasing. If current pumping rates continue, many aquifers will be depleted in the next 50 years. There are many communities dependent on agriculture production or future population growth that cannot be sustained in the future by groundwater. The normal yield of the Colorado and the Salt Rivers is not going provide a sustainable supply of water when groundwater is no longer available. I’m specifically talking about parts of Cochise, Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal Counties. We’re not California; we do not have access to the Pacific Ocean for desalination. I am concerned for Arizona’s water future. 

Tom Davis is the general manager of the Yuma County Water Users Association and the president of the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona. He can be contacted at tdavis@ycwua.org.