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Central Arizona farmers seek money for switch to groundwater

Central Arizona farmers were making a last-minute plea Thursday to state lawmakers for $20 million to dig wells and build canals as they prepare to lose access to Colorado River water.

With budget talks heating up between legislative leaders and aides for Gov. Doug Ducey, a wide variety of interests are jockeying for a share of a $1 billion surplus in the roughly $11.5 billion budget.

Pinal County farmers say they urgently need the money to transition to using groundwater.

“We have a good strong economy in this state,” said Republican Rep. David Cook, a rancher who represents much of the county and has led the charge for more state money. “We invest in things all the time. This is an investment in infrastructure.”

Farmers between Phoenix and Tucson face the most drastic cuts under a seven-state plan to take less water from the drought-stricken river.

Water rights are based on seniority, and in a shortage, the junior players lose out first.

Pinal County farmers agreed in the early 2000s to take the lowest-priority position in the pecking order in exchange for cheaper water. They thought they’d have access to Colorado River water until 2027.

But lakes Mead and Powell — the major reservoirs that store Colorado River water — have fallen precipitously low since then after two decades of dry weather in the seven-state river basin. There isn’t enough rain and snowfall to deliver all the water promised for 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland.

Lawmakers have already committed $9 million to help the farmers’ transition to groundwater and are allowing them to use existing taxes on groundwater pumping to build more infrastructure.

The farmers are asking the state for $20 million more, which they say would be repaid by the federal government.

“If we don’t have the money now, money from the feds later will be a day late and a dollar short,” said Tiffany Shedd, a lawyer and farmer.

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