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An Arizona Farmer Grapples With Drought

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The Colorado River is a lifeline for about 40 million people across the western United States. And after years of drought, it's running low - really low. The federal government has, for the first time, declared a water shortage there. That means water cutbacks across the west, especially for farmers in Arizona. Many rely on CAP, the Central Arizona Project, to irrigate their fields. It's a system made up of hundreds of miles of canals. Other sources, like groundwater reserves, are already under strain. This all has been particularly tough for farmers like Nancy Caywood. She's co-owner of Caywood Farms near Casa Grande in Arizona and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NANCY CAYWOOD: Thank you. Glad to be here.

KHALID: So to start, tell me about your farm. What crops do you all grow?

CAYWOOD: We grow cotton, and we grow alfalfa. And my grandfather purchased our land in 1930. And so we are a fifth-generation farm.

KHALID: Oh, wow. So in normal times, before these current water-straining conditions, before this severe drought, how would you all get water to the lands that you own?

CAYWOOD: When my granddad bought this farm, he signed an agreement with the San Carlos Irrigation District. And so we receive water from the Gila River, and it is dammed up by Coolidge Dam, which is east of Globe, Ariz. And the lake is known as San Carlos Lake and is capable of holding 1.2 million acre-feet of water.

KHALID: Could you explain what you mean by the term acre-foot?

CAYWOOD: Yes, an acre-foot is 325,000 gallons. Or think of a football field with a 12-inch wall around it, and that's what you could envision it looking like.

KHALID: So given the drought, then, what are you doing right now?

CAYWOOD: The dam has 25,000 acre-feet in it. And in May, it had dropped all the way to zero acre-feet. Predicting that this was coming, the San Carlos Irrigation District shut the canals down that delivers water to us. And so April 1, we had no water available to us. So we watched our alfalfa dry up. We were unable to plant cotton because the water just wasn't available to us. And we have had some recent rains. What seems to be growing in there more than anything is weeds.

KHALID: So are you now in a position where you're really unable to grow any of the crops that you normally would?

CAYWOOD: Yes, we have zero water available to us.

KHALID: So what can you do as a farmer to really mitigate this situation? Is there anything that you can do? Are there different crops that you could plant or some type of alternative just to try to make do with less? And - I don't know - sorry if that's even a silly question, just given the fact that it's not like you're dealing with less. It's like you're dealing with zero water right now.

CAYWOOD: Interestingly enough, our water is attached to our taxes. So we have to pay for two acre-feet of water whether or not we receive it. And we have not received water in that amount in years because of the drought. This is the first year, though, that our canals have been shut down this early. Usually they shut them down in December for maintenance, but this year they were shut down in April. So my son leased some land south of Coolidge and also over by Eloy, and that has Central Arizona Project water. And so he grew corn for dairies, and hopefully he will make enough money on that to cover water and taxes for this farm. And, you know, if we should continue the drought and can't make these taxes, they could put a lean against us even though our land is paid for.

KHALID: You know, you've been telling me, Nancy, about how you are in a situation where you're having to lease land elsewhere just so you can cover taxes on the farm that you have right now. I mean, how do you envision keeping your farm up and running given the scarcity of water?

CAYWOOD: Thankfully, we've had some rainwater. Our alfalfa probably will not come back, and it'll take, you know, thousands of dollars to replant it. And we don't want to replant it right now because we don't know what the future of the dam is. And we're very concerned about it. And, you know, our future is so unstable right now, we're just not sure. There's a lot of solar companies buying land around us. And I don't know if we're going to become victim to having to sell our land or if we're going to be able to somehow continue on. Right now, it's looking very, very grim.

KHALID: That's Nancy Caywood, co-owner of Caywood Farms near Casa Grande in Arizona. Thanks again.

CAYWOOD: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.