Water meeting has folks talking about farming

Carlos Cella, owner of Cella Winery in Valle Vista, shows the drip irrigation system that uses one gallon a day to water each of his 4,000 plants. That’s not much compared to what’s needed for fruit and nut trees, he said.

Photo by Hubble Ray Smith.

Carlos Cella, owner of Cella Winery in Valle Vista, shows the drip irrigation system that uses one gallon a day to water each of his 4,000 plants. That’s not much compared to what’s needed for fruit and nut trees, he said.

KINGMAN – The folks who attended Tuesday evening’s meeting with officials from the Arizona Department of Water Resources weren’t interested in fancy slide presentations and various calculations about how much water is left in the Hualapai Basin.

They wanted to know what it’s going to take to stop farming operations around Red Lake and Valle Vista from draining the valley dry.

One man told agency representatives he didn’t have a college education like they did, but he knows what’s going on in his own backyard. He’s counted 135 wells in the Red Lake area.

“Why doesn’t the governor issue an executive order and stop the farmers?” he asked.

Well, sir, it’s not quite that easy. State laws are written in favor of agricultural and mining industries, which go back 150 years in Mohave County. If they can show “beneficial use,” they can drop a well.

Water in the Western states is becoming scarce as drought conditions have persisted for more than three decades. Lake Mead and the Colorado River continue to drop to historically low levels.

Population is growing, albeit at a 3 percent to 4 percent rate in Kingman, and farming operations are exiting California as water allocations from the Colorado River have been reduced for agricultural use in the Imperial Valley and San Joaquin Valley.

A U.S. Geological Survey report from 2014 shows annual demand in Kingman exceeds yearly supply by about 5,600 acre-feet. It’s only going to get worse as more farms migrate to Mohave County.

Ninety percent of Mohave County farming operations are well users and don’t have to report their usage, said John Riggins of ADWR.

“Water level steadily has a decreasing trend recession,” Riggins told about 50 citizens attending the meeting at Mohave Community College as he showed a graph depicting year-to-year changes. “However, 2012 through 2015 is pretty consistent.”

Estimated supply

At Cella Winery in Valle Vista, owner Carlos Cella has installed a drip-irrigation system that uses one gallon of water a day for each of his 4,000 plants.

When A-1 Drilling put in the well that’s shared by 10 property owners in the area, including Cella and Stetson wineries, the drillers estimated a supply of 100 to 125 years, Cello said.

“So we didn’t see changes in the level of the water so far,” he said. “I don’t know about the future, next year or the year after. I met a guy who said, ‘You don’t have to worry about it,’ because all the water ends up here from the mountains.”

Cella said he doesn’t have the expertise to say whether or not the influx of California farmers will affect groundwater levels.

“It’s a concern for everyone. We’re in the same aquifer,” the Argentina-born winemaker said. “By the same token, A-1 said we have enough water for 125 years. I’m not going to see that. I will be concerned for the future of the area, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

A second well is being drilled off of Route 66 in the Valle Vista area on land purchased by a nut farmer from California. The company bought about 6,000 acres, formerly part of Neal Ranch, and plans to grow pistachios, walnuts and almonds.

With full production on the amount of land purchased for farming, Beard’s Nut Company would use about 24,000 acre-feet of water a year, said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson.

“If you combined that with the 25,000 acre-feet Kingman Farms is currently using, it’s a lot,” Johnson said.

Nick Hont, director of Mohave County Development Services, felt ADWR officials were missing the point.

Kingman municipality is pumping about 8,000 acre-feet of water for residential and commercial use each year, but nobody knows how much is being pumped for agricultural purposes, Hont said.

“We think it’s 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet,” he answered.

County action

At the request of Supervisor Steve Moss, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors on Monday unanimously voted to hire an outside attorney to protect the county’s water rights.

“We focused our attention on aquifers and it’s appropriate to focus on ground water,” Moss said of a recent water conference he attended.

“However, ADWR has been planning for a contingency. In Arizona, our head is going to be on the block. We’re one of only three counties on the Colorado River. It’s not hard to figure where those bombs are going to be falling.”

Moss wants to lay the groundwork well in advance of ADWR plans. He will submit names of legal professionals with expertise in water rights “so we are prepared, rather than be surprised,” he said.

Johnson agreed, saying water management is going to be an important topic for years to come, especially in Mohave County.

“In order for future generations to be able to continue to call Mohave County home, we have to ensure the water supply is going to be sustainable,” he said.

County Administrator Mike Hendrix said the county hired legal representation for both the Planet Ranch case involving water transfer by Freeport McMoran mine, and for litigation with the Hualapai Tribe.

Both of those attorneys are ending their contracts, which leaves Mohave County without representation, he said.

“I believe Mohave County should be represented on both ground water and surface water,” Hendrix said. He asked the board to work with Moss in sending out requests for proposals to several law firms.

Growing concern

While water rights have been in the middle of many feuds in the Southwestern desert, it’s become more of a concern in recent years.

Las Vegas developer Jim Rhodes purchased about 20,000 acres in the Red Lake area in 2014 and started growing alfalfa, which was reportedly being shipped to California and foreign countries, under the name of Kingman Farms.

Rhodes said he would be using water-conserving drip irrigation systems on his farms, though above-ground watering apparatuses cropped up, much to the dismay of local residents.

The numbers were never confirmed, but Rhodes had somewhere around 50 existing and proposed wells to support his farming operations, according ADWR.

At a town hall meeting in November 2014, geologist Luis Vega laid out worst-case scenario of 55-year water supply, based on 3 percent growth in Kingman and 25,000 acre-feet a year taken by Rhodes. At best, with no growth, the supply was estimated at 216 years.

Rhodes’ majority share of Kingman Farms was acquired by East Coast investors who renamed the company Stockton Hill Farms.

Stockton Hill Farms will use 60,000 to 70,000 acre-feet of water a year, with an estimated 15 million acre-feet of water available in the aquifer being pumped in that part of the Hualapai Valley basin, fund manager and Stockton Hills Farm principal Bob Saul said.

The goal of Tuesday’s ADWR meeting was to obtain up-to-date data on water supply and usage from three aquifers within Hualapai Basin.

“This is just to get our data organized,” said Gerry Walker, ADWR deputy assistant director. “We’re well aware of what everyone’s primary concern is.”