GRIC Canal (copy)

A canal on the Gila River Indian Community provides water to local farms.

COOLIDGE — When life gives people lemons, they should make lemonade. When life gives an irrigation district a drought, they should make the most of the land.

After Coolidge Dam water releases on the Gila River were stopped in the summer of 2018, it caused many problems for the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District and its members in Pinal County. But they had no choice — there simply wasn’t any water to release.

Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the district lined up all the logistics to allow for immediate and continuous work on its massive canal system. The bulk of that work is lining the canals with concrete so the water no longer flows over soil, where a significant amount tends to soak in. This also allows for faster and more controlled flow of water.

Doing this requires the canals to be dry, so SCIDD saw the opportunity to use the nine-month water cutoff to get ahead of schedule with the canal work. And according to Shane Lindstrom, the district’s general manager, the plan worked out well. SCIDD was able to take about 10 months off the projected completion time through the work done during the dry-up.

“We got to start early and go a little longer,” Lindstrom said.

While other irrigation districts have concrete-lined canals, San Carlos only in recent years decided to take that step.

In all, SCIDD was able to line 4 miles of canal in northern Pinal County, and now it has its eyes set on the next phase of the project, which is a 12-mile stretch that will bring it to the Pima Lateral canal.

There will still be much work to be done after that phase is completed, but it will mark a transition. Up to and including the next 12-mile stretch, SCIDD has been partnering with the Gila River Indian Community to reconstruct the canals, since this is also a key source of water for the reservation along with its newer Colorado River allotment. After that, though, the canals no longer service GRIC, meaning the federal government will no longer be providing the greater than 50% of funding for the lining.

That next phase would be for the canals connecting Pima Lateral with Picacho Reservoir south of Coolidge, where SCIDD is hoping to construct a new water retention area to go alongside the old one that is no longer designated to serve that purpose. Membership assessments would likely not be able to pay for the project on their own, so Lindstrom is pursuing grant opportunities.

The benefits of a lined canal are twofold. First, it makes more efficient use of the water — something that is particularly important during times like today where there is so little water to go around.

But it also helps district members because the water flows much faster, allowing them to get the water they need closer to the time they need it. Water in a lined canal goes twice as fast as in earthen canals, where fast water can erode the infrastructure, which makes for quite a difference for a canal system that is 60 miles long.

“It’s amazing how fast water can get down there,” Lindstrom said. “Our goal is to make it as fast as we can so if a grower calls and asks if they can get water tomorrow, we can get them water tomorrow.”

Water levels behind Coolidge Dam are beginning to fall very low again, with the latest reports as of press time showing less than 12,000 acre-feet. However, Lindstrom said most cotton growers are done irrigating their crop for the season, so the levels might start to creep back up. There will also be two extended dry-ups from Oct. 28 to Dec. 1 and Dec. 23 to Jan. 27.

With many farmers having cut back on their crops this season, and with fears mounting over Pinal County growers losing their access to some Central Arizona Project water under the recently passed drought contingency plan, some are starting to raise doubts about the future of agriculture in the area. But Lindstrom isn’t ready to go there yet.

“It was a good year this year,” he said. “It was cool to start off so there was a little bit of a delay. But the weather has been good and the cotton is looking good. Everybody knew what the water supply was, so it looks like we’re going to be able to make it through the year with a little water left. So let’s do it again next year.”