Currently the city of Coolidge has 8,000 acres of irrigated farmland slated for conversion to solar farms. Soon, we will be considering converting an additional approximately 1,800 acres of irrigated farmlands to solar also. These additional acres are located almost entirely along the north and south sides of Coolidge Avenue, on the east side of our city. These same 1,800 acres are all San Carlos District irrigated farmlands that hold title to certified irrigation grandfather water rights dating from the late 1800s.
San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District was incorporated in 1930 and is responsible for the delivery of irrigation waters to 50,000 grandfathered water right acres, located from the east side of Florence, including nearly all of Coolidge and all the way to the west side of Casa Grande. San Carlos irrigated lands also include the Gila River Indian Community, which is also 50,000 acres, bringing the total acres of San Carlos lands to 100,000 acres.
Water delivered to San Carlos lands is collected and stored in San Carlos Lake, behind Coolidge Dam near Globe. Rains and snowpack from our enormous watershed, located across northern and northeastern Arizona and western New Mexico,” flows/runs off” into San Carlos Lake. The current capacity of San Carlos Lake is 900,000 acre-feet. Currently, there is a little over 40,000 acre-feet in storage in San Carlos Lake, a result of our recent monsoon rains. Storage at San Carlos Lake only a few short weeks ago was at zero.
The overwhelming majority of water collected behind Coolidge Dam is from snowpack. Winter storms (nature) can hand out every possible scenario from droughts to flooding. We have experienced water allotments from over 4-plus acre-feet per acre to our 2021 allotment of only 0.47 acre-foot per acre. This is the lowest allotment in the history of the San Carlos Project. The historical average water allotment on the San Carlos Project is 2 acre-feet per acre. This is enough water to plant approximately 50% of all San Carlos farmlands during any given year and rest the other half in rotation to plant in the next year. Rain and snow falling on the San Carlos watershed is a “renewable” water source.
San Carlos is currently enjoying an amazing makeover! Approximately 75% (75,000 acres) of its large irrigation canals have recently been concrete lined and the remaining 25%, approximately 25,000 acres, are slated to be concrete lined in the next few years. Due to seepage from the old dirt canals, San Carlos was only able to deliver half its stored water. The other half absorbed into the dirt canals. Soon all our large canals will be all concrete lined and coupled with the installation of our six new Drought Contingency Plan wells, which are completely funded, and construction is currently underway — San Carlos will be able to nearly double past water allotments.
Solar energy can benefit us all but only when it’s located in the proper place. Converting irrigated farmland, especially this close to our city center, completely limits Coolidge’s ability to grow. Arizona Water Company may one day expand its service lines down Coolidge Avenue and enable new communities on our city’s east side.
Coolidge is an agriculturally based community. Most of our businesses and jobs rely directly and/or indirectly on local agriculture. Solar farms eliminate local jobs when they replace agriculture. Agriculture supports jobs and creates a beautiful community. Crops like alfalfa, cotton, wheat, barley and corn clean our air, reduce dust, produce oxygen and cool the environment. Solar farms do affect the local environment by increasing temperatures and unfortunately create what is termed “a heat island effect.” Lots of concrete and blacktopped roads create a heat island effect also and that’s why many of us enjoy and prefer living here in Coolidge rather than large cities like Phoenix.
Solar adds another benefit, I am told, in the form of more tax monies collected than agriculture pays. Each acre of San Carlos irrigated farmland contributes property taxes. When one does the math: $87 times 50,000 acres equals $4,350,000. Every year, San Carlos lands pay this amount for maintenance and operations and for the operation of local schools, county and city governments. I honestly do not know the amount solar farms pay in property taxes. It would be nearly impossible to estimate lost tax revenues from job losses and decreased sales to local businesses, so I am at a loss to honestly compare which pays more. I do know that local agriculture provides many jobs for many families and when even one job is lost it is devastating for not only the family but the entire community.
In closing, I want to continue to express my support for clean energy. I believe most will quickly become obsolete as technology advances. We must, however, pursue remedies to cleaner, sustainable forms of energy coupled with common sense. We are all opposed to warming our earth’s atmosphere so let’s not replace farmland that cleans and cools our planet with something that does quite the opposite. Let’s limit solar to suitable locations and save our finite irrigated farmlands.
Noah Hiscox is a longtime Coolidge farmer and secretary of the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District board.