Gov. Doug Ducey said Friday he sees no reason for farmers to give up growing cotton in the desert, even with the ongoing drought situation.
Ducey told Capitol Media Services he believes there’s plenty of water for everyone. And he rejected any suggestion that Arizona needs to cut back on water for agricultural use – about 70 percent of what the state consumes now – if the state is continue to grow.
The governor’s comments came after he attended a ceremony on the Gila River Indian Community to formally inaugurate the tribe’s managed aquifer recharge project.
That project is related at least indirectly to the newly approved drought contingency plan. According to tribal officials, storing more water underground will allow it to not only replenish its aquifer and increase its reliance on pumped groundwater rather than rely on its allocation of water through the Central Arizona Project.
And that, in turn, allows the tribe to leave some of its allocation in Lake Mead, already anticipated to drop to a level next year that will reduce Arizona’s share of river water, to prevent the lake from dropping even further and triggering even more cuts.
Even without the drought, Arizona is in the desert. And the state averages only about eight inches of rain a year.
Ducey said that shouldn’t deter farmers from continuing to plant cotton. He said that water deals going back years create “a balance between agriculture, development and, of course, respect for our tribal nations.”
As to whether that balance needs to change, Ducey said he wants “to leave the discussion on some of the specifics to the actual subject-matter experts.”
“But Arizona’s been a proud cotton state in the past,” he said. “And I believe we can be one going into the future as well.”
That, however, still leaves the question of whether there is enough for the state, whose population now exceeds 7 million, can continue to grow with such a high percentage of its water being consumed by crops.
“There will always be more to do on water in Arizona,” he said. But Ducey also cited figures from the state Department of Water Resources that overall use in Arizona is slightly less than it was in the 1957, when the state’s population was about one million – and not just on a per-capita basis.
Agency spokesman Doug MacEachern said some of that is due to farmers becoming more efficient with their irrigation practices. But MacEachern said that there also is less farming in the state.
“We’re still able to enjoy a great quality of life in Arizona,” the governor said.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who was at Friday’s event, said he shares the governor’s belief that there’s no need to tell farmers they should not be growing cotton.
Anyway, he said, the desert climate is at least part of the reason that cotton grown here commands higher prices. And that, Shope said, is because farmers can control not only when plants are watered but how much goes on it.
He told of visiting a lawmaker from Alabama who is a cotton farmer outside of Huntsville “who gushed over what we’re able to do here.”
For the moment, the voices promoting farming appear to have the upper hand in Arizona.
During the recent debate over the drought contingency plan, Sandy Bahr, chapter president of the Sierra Club, told lawmakers that one element of the plan should be to at least encourage farmers to convert from thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa to more sustainable plants. And she bemoaned the fact that there is nothing in the plan that actually deals with conservation.
Ducey’s response was to sign an executive order forming a council “to analyze and recommend opportunities for water augmentation, innovation and conservation. The council’s first report is due July 1, 2020.