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State should loan Pinal County farmers funds until feds pitch in

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Recognizing the immediate realities of a historic drought, the Legislature and governor acted responsibly this year to approve the Drought Contingency Plan. The DCP prepares Arizona for a drier future, but its implementation requires cooperation and sacrifice among many water users.

Sine Kerr

Sine Kerr

If Lake Mead water level continues to drop as predicated, Arizona will lose allocations of Colorado River water currently dedicated to Pinal County farming. To lessen the immediate effects on agriculture, some higher priority water users are diverting a portion of their water entitlements to Pinal over the next three years. Beginning in 2023, however, Pinal farming will be wholly dependent on groundwater. And farming is a big business that doesn’t only grow crops, but grows an economy as well. In Pinal County, farmers contribute $2.3 billion annually to the economy. The impact, of course, reaches far beyond the political boundaries of the county. Half of the beef consumed in Maricopa County comes from Pinal County as does 39 percent of the milk we drink in the metropolitan area. As a farmer myself and one who represents many farmers in my district, I well understand the challenges faced by the families and companies that bring food to our homes, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Because groundwater infrastructure is costly and time-consuming to build, Pinal must act now to ensure reliable access to groundwater in 2023. Recognizing the need for immediate action, the DCP jumpstarts infrastructure efforts with $9 million from the state and $5 million from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. It also dedicates another $1.2 million annually to infrastructure improvements. Unfortunately, further investment of approximately $20 million is needed to fulfill the groundwater needs of Pinal farmers.

Based on my discussions with officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and United States Department of Agriculture during the DCP process, the federal government recognizes the conservation benefits of Pinal agriculture’s conversion from a surface water to groundwater system. Under the drought-focused Farm Bill recently passed by Congress, the USDA will allocate federal funds available to support conservation projects like the efforts underway in Pinal County. I am highly optimistic that federal funds are forthcoming. The Pinal irrigation districts are already in the works preparing the necessary applications so they are ready when USDA announces the opening of the program.

Unfortunately, the federal government has been notoriously slow in administering USDA programs with the average application and funding process taking nearly two years. Although Congress added new statutory instructions for expedited fund distribution in the latest Farm Bill, Pinal farmers cannot wait for federal action. As the Legislature prepares its budget for the next fiscal year, we must consider mechanisms to advance the expected $20 million federal investment in Pinal.

Farmers from around the state contribute to our economy, provide food for our tables and remain good stewards of our state’s scarce water supplies. Providing certainty for Pinal Agriculture is desperately needed to preserve this important way of life and economic driver for Arizona.

— Sen. Sine Kerr is a Republican who represents Legislative District 13

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