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In agricultural Yuma, state, federal and local water talks are dictated by the law of the river

It’s impossible to talk about water in Arizona without talking about the Colorado River. 

It supplies water to 40 million people across the American West, including more than two dozen tribes, cities like Phoenix and Tucson, and agriculture. The river travels some 1,450 miles all told and drains into seven US states, including Arizona, and two in Mexico. 

The Yuma Valley is sort of at the crux of all that. It sits on the westernmost corner of Arizona and abuts both Mexico and California. But for the farming operations that define this region, like Jesus Tovar’s, it’s an almost imperceptible transition. 

“Maybe 50-55% of the acreage I farm are here on the Yuma Valley, and the rest of it is on the Quechan reservation, which is in California — the Quechan Nation,” he said. "Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, just about everything you can think of, we grow it." 

Tovar’s been farming here for 40 years. He was born in Mexico and he grew up just across the state line, in California. Today, he’s the owner of T&P Farms Inc. 

We're on a dirt road in the middle of one of his plots — tall blades of Durum wheat in various stages of production blow in the wind on either side of us. Like a lot of farmers here, T&P farms specializes in leafy greens. In fact, the Yuma area processes some 90% of all the leafy greens in the U.S. during the winter. Tovar says minerals left behind from when the river used to flood are part of what makes this land so fertile. 

“You know, what makes everything that we produce here the best is the water — water is life,” he said. “The world is always changing, and we change with the world. The one thing I can say is that we are very fortunate because of the water rights that we have.” 

But how does that water get here, today? And what determines where it goes? 

Just down the road, Tom Davis, general manager of the Yuma County Water Users Association, shows me one piece of that process. 

“OK, you see, the structure there in the canal? That’s a measuring device,” he said, pointing at a round dial on top of a metal stake in the water. 

The Yuma County Water Users Association is the oldest of seven water management offices for this area and it’s the one that Tovar is a part of. We’re looking at a cement canal carrying Colorado River water — part of a complex web of dams, aqueducts, pipelines and canals across the Colorado River Basin States. There’s a big, metal gate plunged into the water that’s controlled by a master system back at Davis’ office.

“If we want more water in this ditch, he’ll drop that gate a little bit, let it build up, then he’ll open this gate a little more,” he said.

Growers, residents and businesses part of the water association call in with the amount of water they need for irrigation. Dozens of these gates installed through the system move up and down throughout the day to release water according to those orders. 

“At the height of the season, the refrigerated truck leaves Yuma every 90 seconds around the clock, hauling produce somewhere in North America,” Davis said. 

The Yuma County Water Users Association was established in 1903 — before Arizona was even a state. Unlike other irrigation and water management districts in Arizona, which are controlled by the state, the association is a private entity. It has some of the most senior river water rights in Arizona, second only to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, in Parker.

“In theory, who knows if it ever happens, but in theory, we get the last drop of water — except for the Colorado River Indian tribe — in Arizona,” Davis said.

It’s part of what’s called the law of the river — a series of agreements made between the states that use the water. Arizona, California and Nevada — known as the lower Basin States — can collectively use up to 7.5 million acre feet of water under that set up every year.

Farms in Yuma have some of the oldest and strongest claims to the water. Same goes for those just across the state line in California. Nick Bahr manages the Bard Water District there, which also sustains farms.

“Outside of the Yuma area, I don’t know of another area that’s like this, that they farm on both sides, it’s quite unique,” he said.

Cities like Phoenix and Tucson, meanwhile, have junior water rights. Under existing agreements, they’d be first in line to make cuts in the event of water shortages. But Bahr says that came into question a few years ago, when the Bureau of Reclamation proposed making even cuts across the board instead.

“You know, we’ve spent over 100 years developing the law of the river and how everything should flow and the first time it really comes into practice, one of the action items is just to throw it all out and cut everybody,” he said.

He says junior and senior rights holders had a renewed interest in finding a different solution as a result. Meghan Scott, a water lawyer with the Noble Law Office in Yuma, says states and other entities that use the water want a say in how to preserve it.

“That idea that we can control our own destiny, either as a state, or as a lower basin, an upper basin, or, you know, the entire basin,” she said. “We like that idea a lot better than leaving it up to the federal government.”

This month, the federal government officially accepted a plan crafted by the lower basin states to conserve three million acre feet of water through 2026. It’ll happen through a series of voluntary cuts and aims to keep more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. California, Arizona and Nevada submitted another proposal for after 2026, which aims to save 3.9 million acre feet.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke says water users from several different sectors, including agriculture, have agreed to make cuts. 

“What I want as an outcome is for all the water users who benefit from the river to contribute, and if that means, voluntarily, to contribute to the protection of the water system,” he said. 

The Lower Basin plan is one of a handful submitted. Buschatzke says he hopes the efforts those states have already made to save water will afford them some priority for what comes next.

Every Last Drop from KJZZ

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.