Desert almond farmers are staking out water rights in Mohave County
Jim Rhodes put a scare into Mohave County residents when the Las Vegas developer bought 20,000 acres around Red Lake and started drilling wells to grow water-intensive alfalfa crop, tapping into the Hualapai Basin aquifer that’s been steadily declining over the last 20 years.
Even after Rhodes went bankrupt with Kingman Farms, auctioned off his farm equipment and the business was acquired by a Massachusetts-based hedge fund, concerns remain about the proliferation of farming operations popping up in the area.
Three different almond tree farmers have shown interest in the Valle Vista area. Beard’s Quality Nut Co. from Modesto, California, started growing pistachios, walnuts and almonds two years ago on 6,000 acres that was once part of Neal Ranch. And Rhodes reportedly retained 300 acres in Golden Valley where he planted an orchard of pistachio and almond trees.
People don’t like it, but there’s not much they can do about it, said Gary Watson, chairman of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors.
According to Arizona law, anyone can drill a well on their property if the water is to be used for “beneficial purposes,” and agriculture fits that definition.
“Regulation … that’s not something Mohave County is capable of doing,” Watson said in a phone interview. “Can we stop farming operations? The answer is no. It’s a legal pursuit of land ownership, but we’re doing what we can with the (U.S. Geological Survey) study and the Arizona Department of Water Resources.”
Watson said the county has done all it can by hiring legal representation to protect its water rights, working with legislators and ADWR officials and funding a three-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“We can’t regulate or tell them to stop. We can help with best farming practices. Mohave County does not have jurisdiction to stop the rightful use of their land. I’m sorry, but that’s the way the Arizona constitution is written,” the supervisor said.
Drought conditions have placed water restrictions on users throughout the Southwest, forcing many California farmers to relocate from the San Joaquin Valley and other farming valleys to Arizona.
A U.S. Geological Survey report from 2014 shows annual demand for water 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.
Bob Saul, manager of the hedge fund that acquired Kingman Farms, said the new venture, Stockton Hill Farms, plans to use 60,000 to 70,000 acre-feet of water a year to grow alfalfa.
“Our intention is to establish agriculture here in a sustainable way,” Saul told the Board of Supervisors when he took over Rhodes’ company three years ago. “I know there’s debate as to what that means. Our definition is best management practices. We’re not in the business of shortcuts or jeopardizing everyone’s aquifer in the basin.”
An August 2014 hydrogeology report on the Hualapai basin by geologist Luis Vega estimated 7.6 million acre-feet in storage to a depth of 1,200 feet, with a negative recharge of 32,000 acre-feet a year.
How long will that last with the increase in almond farmers?
“That’s a tough question because each type (of crop) takes a lot of water,” Vega said Friday.
Agriculture along the Colorado River is different because farms are using surface water and it’s constantly flowing into the river, he noted. The problem with farming other parts of Mohave County such as Red Lake, Valle Vista and Golden Valley is the inability to replenish the water supply.
“We have a bucket and if you take water out of the bucket and don’t replace it, you’re going to run out. That’s common sense,” the retired geologist said. “You can have agriculture if you can withstand paying the cost to go (drill) deeper, until you hit the salt dome.”
Slow the flow
People in Mohave County have always thought they had plenty of water in the Hualapai Basin aquifer for residential use, but weren’t thinking about agriculture, Vega said. They were missing the basic point about not being able to replenish the supply.
The problem is that rainfall from the mountains flows into Red Lake, which is “impervious” to drainage because of the soil’s clay composition, Vega explained. Instead of seeping into the ground, the water evaporates.
He advocates building detention basins at the mouth of washes such as the Truxton Wash and Mohave Wash, an idea that’s been kicked around for a few years, but never had an “urgency,” he said. It’s still not going to replenish the aquifers with the rate of people moving into Mohave County.
“The idea is to slow down the speed the bucket is being emptied, maybe push the problem 100 years down the road, because eventually as people move into the desert Southwest, the United States will have to figure out a way to get water from the Northwest to the Southwest,” Vega said.
Supervisor Buster Johnson feels it’s going to get worse. ACX Global of Saudi Arabia is farming alfalfa in La Paz County and will become more dependent on places like this as the drought deepens in Saudi Arabia.
“You guys are in deep trouble up there,” said Johnson, who represents Lake Havasu City. “There’s not much you can do about the farms. We can try to enact legislation, but these guys are grandfathered in.”