CASA GRANDE -- Dick Powell knows Pinal County farmers. His father, Dewey, opened Powell Feed & Supply in 1951. Dick took over later. He ran the store until it closed for good in 2019.
He sold just about everything to run a farm.
Except water. And right about now, the farmers could sure use some. Lake Mead is at about 35% capacity. That’s not even glass half-full. It’s fed by the Colorado River, which has been running a bit low lately.
Pinal farmers know what’s coming. They’re last in line for water. To put it another way — they’re first in line for likely cuts to Arizona’s share of the Colorado, delivered by the Central Arizona Project. They can turn to groundwater, Powell says. But not forever.
He quotes the former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Herb Guenther.
“If we pump the aquifers dry,” Guenther said, “we have the Gobi Desert.”
We’d be living out of yurts. And there’d be nothing to hold down the dirt. No crops. The abandoned farmland would become the next dustbowl. The dust storms would only get worse.
There’s little hope for improvement, if you’re counting on Mother Nature.
“Most of it’s climate change,” Powell says. “It really is. A lot of crusty old farmers … don’t believe in it.”
Recognizing climate change isn’t exactly a Republican talking point. That makes Powell, a Republican, a bit of an outlier. But he wants what the farmers want. And need. Water.
He’s on the side of the crusty old farmers. Farming is big business in Pinal County, he says. He doesn’t want to see it vanish.
I met up with Powell last week at the CookEJar. He treated me to my usual coffee and cookie. He told me a little about himself. He was born during the Second World War in San Diego. His father was stationed there. Dewey was a chief petty officer in the Navy, training sailors for the Pacific Theater.
When Dick was 7, the family moved to Casa Grande. He helped out around the feed store. After high school, he left to attend what became Northern Arizona University.
“I can remember leaving Casa Grande in the rearview mirror and thinking I was gone forever.”
On graduating, he worked for Ralston Purina, now defunct. He did an eight-year stint with the Army National Guard. He returned to Casa Grande in 1970 and took up running the family business. He was elected to the Casa Grande City Council in 1997. He’s still there, though at 77 he doubts he’ll run again.
He represents the city on a regional water panel. It goes by the name of Pinal County Water Augmentation Authority.
Last Tuesday, he showed up at the CookEJar in his signature cowboy hat.
As things stand, he said, we just can’t rely on the trickle coming off the Colorado River. We’ll have to shop around. And Powell knows just the place. The big box store of rivers. The mighty Mississippi.
His plan? Tap into the Mississippi and build a pipeline to carry the water. Boston had the Big Dig. We’ll have the Big Straw.
This is not a new idea. Powell, for one, has talked of tapping into the Mississippi for some five years. The Dispatch’s Aaron Dorman recently reported on Powell’s Mississippi dreams. Without new water, Powell said, farmers won’t be the only ones left out to dry.
So will developers. They dream of a master-planned community known as Superstition Vistas. Houses everywhere east of Gold Canyon.
But not without water, Powell says. And what better source than the mighty Mississippi. We’ll take the water nobody there wants anyway. Floodwater.
Powell’s wife Nancy came up with that idea.
She and Dick had watched coverage of flooding along the Mississippi. Damage ran to the billions. Davenport, Iowa, alone sustained $30 million in losses.
Nancy said: “It’s a shame we can’t get that flood water. We have an issue with not enough water. And they have an issue with too much water.”
So Powell went to work on his win-win. With help, he drew up plans. They call for a diversion dam and reservoir along the Mississippi, right in Davenport’s backyard. Maybe its front yard.
This would be upstream water, Powell said. Clean mountain-fresh snowmelt. Not the Big Muddy you get downstream.
Next, you lay a pipeline in the Interstate 80 corridor. It’s known as the Federal Corridor. There would be few, if any, right-of-way issues, Powell says. No need to shell out money for digging through somebody’s property. You just follow the interstate for a thousand miles, all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming. There, the water spills into the Green River, which feeds into the Colorado. And flows into the farms of Pinal County. And into the taps of all the new houses in the shadow of the Superstitions.
I pointed out you’d have to build lots of pumps. The water has to clear the Continental Divide, something I read about in high school. In this case, it’s the Rocky Mountains.
Powell wasn’t too worried about that.
“It’s flat till you get there,” he said. An acquaintance driving through Nebraska told him: “It’s so boring I drove into a corn field.”
I read of a $14 billion-plus price tag for a Mississippi pipeline. It was based on a 2012 report by the Bureau of Reclamation, “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.” The pipeline would take 30 years to complete. The report considered other ways to import water. Towing icebergs to California from Alaska was one.
Powell doesn’t have a figure for his plan. The Arizona Legislature approved a resolution asking Congress to fund a feasibility study, one that would ballpark the cost of a pipeline. The resolution passed by large majorities in both chambers. Powell played a big role in making that happen.
The bottom line will run billions in any case. The feds could front a few billion. Arizona could split the remainder with the other six states in the Colorado River Basin. Maybe California will raise its hand: “Waiter, check please.”
But what about the people of Davenport? What do they think? Powell says they’ll be glad to rid themselves of all that extra water lapping up against their front doors. And maybe, I’m thinking, pay us to take it.
I called Davenport just to make sure. I spoke to Corri Spiegel, Davenport city manager. She knows all about Arizona and water. She once worked for the city of Goodyear. She saved on water herself. She had rocks for a front yard.
But now she’s looking out for Davenport. As it happens, she said, Davenport doesn’t have a position on the Big Straw.
She did dampen the idea of Arizona tapping into their floodwater. For one, the Mississippi doesn’t always flood. And, two, the river has no water to spare just now.
“It’s about 5 feet lower than normal,” she said.
It’s all of 4 feet deep. You could stand on the bottom, or try. The current would probably sweep you away. Flood stage is 18 feet. The 2019 flood crested at 22 feet.
Iowa farmers rely on Mississippi water, Spiegel says. So do communities up and down the river.
Pinal farmers would still be last in line.