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In Arizona desert, big farms are springing up

Marketplace Contributor Aug 19, 2015
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When Wayne and Glenda Erwin retired to a quiet, barren corner of the Mojave Desert in Arizona, farming wasn’t on their minds. Mostly it was stargazing and protecting their schnauzers from rattlesnakes.  

Wayne and Glenda Erwin

Wayne and Glenda Erwin 

“They know to keep their distance whenever there’s an encounter,” Erwin says, as he walked down to the edge of his property and pointed to their small well house.

Like most people living in this sparsely populated area, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, the Erwins depend on an aquifer for their drinking water. But recently the demand for groundwater — a valuable resource in this northwest region of Arizona near the city of Kingman — has shot up.

“You can see some green down there, which is alfalfa, I suspect,” Erwin says. “That’s where we first started noticing the well drilling.”

On the horizon, tractors peel through clouds of dust. Red Lake Valley doesn’t exactly strike you as the land of plenty. But in the last couple years, thousands of acres have been converted into farmland and dozens of large-scale agricultural wells have been drilled.

All that pumping is making people around here very nervous.

“Whoever’s got that water,” Erwin says, “they control our destiny here, they really do.”

Look at California’s Central Valley, Erwin says, where aquifers are falling due to generations of pumping. That isn’t the story here in Kingman. Historically, farming never took off, mainly because pulling water out of the ground was too expensive. But with the historic drought in nearby California and the high price of commodity crops, investors are casting their sights elsewhere.

“The water table level is going to drop,” says Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, “There’s just no doubt about that.”

Johnson says the surge in agriculture is jeopardizing the economy of this already water-scarce region. If farms continue to mine groundwater, Johnson believes businesses will be reluctant to locate in the county.

A view of the Erwins' well house outside Kingman, AZ.

A view of the Erwins’ well house outside Kingman, AZ. 

“It’s their right to take the water,” he says of the new farms. “If it works out as a model plan for them, a business plan that they can make money, they can pull the water.”

“When it runs out they can go back, or go on to the next place,” he says.

Unlike Phoenix or Tucson, where groundwater is regulated, most of rural Arizona is basically the Wild West, with no restrictions on how much groundwater growers can pump. Kingman depends on some of the same aquifers as these farms. Some experts estimate the city could run out of water in as soon as 50 years.

So who are these farmers?

It turns out mostly out-of-state investors, including Bob Saul. He’s with Wood Creek Capital, a Connecticut-based investment manager.

At a public meeting this year, he told local officials and residents that he “represents a group of investors, mostly public pension funds.”

Saul says he has closely studied the aquifers and disagrees with the doom and gloom projections. The untouched soil has vast potential for all sorts of crops, he said, mostly to feed the ever-hungry California dairy industry.

“When you are investing for institutions, you really have to use best practices,” Saul says. “We are not in the business of trying to jeopardize anybody’s aquifer or their land base.”

Saul described his operation, Stockton Hill Farms, as probably “the most exciting farmland project” in the country. He says the whole enterprise relies on growing “sustainably,” not how it’s been done in much of California. 

“Now we have a chance in Red Lake to start over again, with brand new soils, brand new water resource, brand new systems,” he says.

And he is not the only one getting in on the action. A Las Vegas developer is also farming huge tracts of land. Despite opposition from some residents and elected officials, not everyone in Mohave County is against the farms.

Emmett Sturgill

Emmett Sturgill 

Emmett Sturgill owns a ranch in the valley and says he’s happy about this burgeoning farming community.

“The alternative, in my view, would be houses, and house tops, and dogs, and four wheelers, and people cutting my fences,” he says.

Sturgill has heard all the rumors — fears the aquifer will go dry, that this is a covert attempt to seize the water or send it to Vegas — but that doesn’t jibe with what he has seen so far.

“It looks to me like they’re trying to put farms together and sell the farms to other farmers to make money,” he says.

Sturgill says he isn’t going to worry about the water. That is, unless his wells start going dry.

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