With the Colorado River continuing to undergo drought, the stipulations of the Drought Contingency Plan mean that this year, the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District (MSIDD), based outside Phoenix, Arizona, will receive only about one-third of its previous water allocation. To help farmers survive the drought, the district plans to get as much as 90 percent of its water from the aquifer in the coming years. MSIDD’s farmers are scrambling to dig wells to tap more groundwater, itself a depletable resource. In this interview, MSIDD Director of Water Operations Tony Solano fills us in on how the district is facing up to the challenging set of circumstances.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Tony Solano: I’ve been at MSIDD for more than 30 years. It was my first real job. I started in an entry-level position and worked my way up to the administration side and then the management side. In 2000, I was selected to move over to Electrical District No. 3, with which we share offices and staff, and helped manage it for about 13 years. In 2014, I was recruited back to help manage the irrigation district. Since then, I’ve been the director of water operations.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the district’s history and its current services?
Tony Solano: MSIDD was formed back in 1962 for the purpose of providing a supply of irrigation water for agricultural use by means of constructing and operating irrigation works. The construction of the main canal system took place in the 1980s, and the district received its first Colorado River surface water delivery in 1987. MSIDD provides water to agricultural users within its 87,000‑acre service area. Of that, about 65,000 acres is farmable land, and about 20,000 acres has been developed into subdivisions. We are in a large dairy farming district, so the primary crops are corn and alfalfa. Our customers used to grow mainly cotton, but now we have a branched out to a mixture of organic crops, such as cantaloupes and roses.
Irrigation Leader: What infrastructure does the district own and operate?
Tony Solano: The district does not own anything other than the well sites that it is drilling, and that just started a couple of years ago. The Bureau of Reclamation owns the main facilities and holds exclusive rights.
Irrigation Leader: What infrastructure do you manage and operate?
Tony Solano: We operate the canal system. The district operates and maintains the Santa Rosa Canal as part of its operations and is the main recipient of water delivered through the canal; however, it also serves as the watermaster and delivers water through the canal to the Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District and the Ak-Chin Indian Community. The system consists of about 75 miles of main canal and over 200 miles of smaller lateral canals that cross our 65,000 acres to deliver to each section. The Santa Rosa Canal is about 55 miles long, and then there’s another 20 miles of what we call the East Main Canal.
Irrigation Leader: How much water do you deliver each year?
Tony Solano: We average somewhere in the range of 250,000–265,000 acre-feet. The district budgets for 265,000, but how much is delivered depends on the weather and the markets. I would say this year is a little different, due to the tier 1 shortage declaration on the Colorado River and the reductions in Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River water.
Irrigation Leader: What is the source of your water?
Tony Solano: Right now, our main source is groundwater, with some surface water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The CAP surface water allocation was already scheduled for planned reductions through 2030, but that allocation
was superseded beginning in 2022 by the tier 1 shortage announcement. In the early years, we used to rely heavily on surface water. Recently, the groundwater/surface water split was about 60/40, then it started decreasing to 50/50. This year, it is going to be 70/30, and next year, it may be 90/10. There’s been a shift back to relying mostly on groundwater as our source.
Irrigation Leader: How have the cuts in Colorado River water deliveries affected your operations?
Tony Solano: The recent cuts in surface water supply have had a tremendous effect and have come a lot earlier than we expected. The district was already planning for a decrease in surface water by 2030, but this tier 1 shortage came a lot earlier than we would have liked it to. Now, we’re trying to plan, design, and construct new infrastructure systems in a very short time, rather than spreading the process out over 9–10 years. That includes drilling new service-area wells and rehabbing existing idle wells and pipelines. We are looking for funding to help with all of this, because it does take funds to build these facilities in a short time.
Irrigation Leader: So the main need is basically the infrastructure to pump and transport groundwater.
Tony Solano: Yes; one of the biggest challenges is the ability to move groundwater throughout the district.
Irrigation Leader: What challenges is urbanization posing to your district?
Tony Solano: Public relations can always be a challenge as development brings more citizens into a what has predominantly been an agricultural area. Adjusting how the district’s operations to maintain or redesign the system as development occurs is something we always have to be mindful of, because it has to work for us and for the more urban areas of the district.
Irrigation Leader: Is your district facing any challenges related to labor shortages or supply chain disruptions?
Tony Solano: Due to labor shortages, just getting people hired in this area is tough. Then you have to train them, which takes a while, because it’s rare to hire somebody off the street who understands how the irrigation system works. The supply chain issues mean that we, like everybody, have to try to predict what we’re going to use months down the road. That is a challenge, as is having the capital to purchase supplies in advance. There’s some risk there, and we definitely have to plan ahead more now because of supply chain disruptions.
Irrigation Leader: What other top issues is your district working on today?
Tony Solano: The aging system is a major issue. It’s more than 30 years old and requires more maintenance. Another top issue is how we’re going to adjust to operating our system with a lower flow. The canal system was built to handle a pretty large volume of water, and now that flow is decreasing rapidly. The system was built to transport both groundwater and CAP water, and both have decreased. Without the same volume of water moving through the system, sediment builds up and needs to be removed more regularly.
Irrigation Leader: Are you seeking funding from Reclamation or other federal agencies?
Tony Solano: Yes, the district is actively seeking any available funding that will fit our needs and help us to tackle some of these challenges.
Irrigation Leader: What is your message to the state legislature and to Congress?
Tony Solano: Having been a part of this community my whole life, I’ve seen how critical agriculture is to this area and to Pinal County. It’s going to take a lot to help sustain the agricultural community so that it can continue to exist and contribute to the local economy. It is important for the dairies and feeders to have feed grown close by for efficient distribution, since most of the beef and dairy products consumed in the Phoenix and Tucson areas come from Pinal County producers. It’s really challenging. We’re going to feel the decrease in crop production economically. The growers are decreasing what they grow based on our water supply. If there’s no water, we can’t grow the necessary feed and crops to keep agriculture going.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your vision for the future.
Tony Solano: My vision for the future of the district is to maximize our water and to keep seeking ways to build infrastructure to transport the groundwater we do have. We also want to develop new water sources. That includes seeking out surface water and looking for ways to conserve and be efficient with the water we do have. We want to take an older system that is based on flow design and integrated with wells and modify it to be flexible and to operate efficiently to meet demands, thereby conserving water and energy. My vision is to keep providing water and transporting it to growers to keep farming going in this area and to continue to help the growers to be good stewards of natural resources, including soil, surface water, and groundwater, in an effort to support their long-term sustainability.