The Sinking Arizona Town Where Water and Politics Collide

In Arizona’s deeply conservative La Paz County, the most urgent issue facing many voters is not inflation or illegal immigration. It is the water being pumped from under their feet.

Giant farms have turned Arizona’s remote deserts about 100 miles west of Phoenix as green as fairways — the product of extracting an ocean of groundwater to grow alfalfa for dairy cows. Water experts say the pumping is sinking poor rural towns. The ground in parts of La Paz County has dropped more than five feet during three decades of farming. Pipes and home foundations are cracking. Wells are running dry.

“What’s going to happen if they take all the water?” asked Luis Zavala, 48, who emigrated from Mexico two decades ago to pick cantaloupes, another water-intensive crop that has been mostly replaced by hay for cows. Now, he works at a water and ice business in Salome, population 700, selling five-gallon jugs.

Even as political battles over abortion consume Arizona’s Capitol, Democrats have seized on water as a life-or-death election issue that they hope gives them an opening — however slight — to reach out to rural voters who abandoned the party.

“Water made me attorney general,” said Kris Mayes, a first-term Democrat who campaigned on cracking down on farms in western Arizona. “This is exactly the kind of issue we can win back some of rural America.”

Summers of record-setting heat and drought have raised doubts for many Arizonans about whether the state has enough water to sustain its farms and fast-growing cities.

A survey last month by Noble Predictive Insights, a Phoenix pollster, found that 60 percent of voters believed the state is running out of water.

Still, Democrats face suspicion in places like La Paz County, a patchwork of emerald-colored farm valleys and scorched mountain ranges whose mild winters draw retirees in RV’s and van-life vagabonds.

For years, populist “pinto Democrats” — named for the multicolored horse breed — survived in these rural corners of Arizona like cactuses in a hostile desert. They supported gun rights, defense and infrastructure projects that sloshed federal money around their communities, said Tom Zoellner, author of “Rim to River,” a chronicle of Arizona’s history and politics. In 1996, La Paz narrowly supported Bill Clinton’s re-election while Arizona’s biggest urban county, Maricopa, went for his Republican opponent.

But now, La Paz, population 17,000, reflects much of rural America’s transformation into bedrock MAGAland that accelerated with former President Donald J. Trump’s appeal to disaffected white voters. Snowbirds playing billiards at the Cactus Bar wear “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirts mocking President Biden, and Trump flags flap from the off-road desert buggies that rumble through the mountains.

Mr. Trump gained ground over Democrats in rural places in 2020, winning 65 percent of rural votes compared with 59 percent in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. La Paz County has gone even deeper red. Even after denying that there was a drought in California and proposing deep cuts to the federal agency that oversees major Western water projects, Mr. Trump won La Paz by 40 points in 2020. Some of his voters scoffed at the idea that the Democrats’ water offensive could make them reconsider their politics.

“Absolutely not,” said Jim Downing, an engineer who works with farms in the area. He accused Democrats and the news media of concocting a water crisis for “purely political” reasons, and said that big farms had been demonized for taking advantage of a legally available resource.

Nevertheless, he joined a crowd of about 150 people at the local library in Wenden, a La Paz farming town, one afternoon in April to hear Ms. Mayes talk about water. The turnout was far higher than the few dozen local officials had been hoping for.

Ms. Mayes has been canvassing the sites of Arizona’s water crises. She has held packed meetings in rural communities where groundwater pumping by a huge dairy farm has opened up fissures in the earth or where people’s 400-foot-deep wells are going dry.

She and other Democrats are talking up ways that money from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure legislation will fund drought relief projects and lay new pipes. “You have been ignored for far too long,” she told the crowd. “Consider the fact that I’m here and the fact that I agree with you.”

She pointed out that she and Gov. Katie Hobbs, a first-term Democrat, had gone after a Saudi-owned farm in La Paz County soon after taking office last year. Critics said the farm, Fondomonte, had been pumping nearly unlimited amounts of water on land that it leased cheaply from the state to grow alfalfa for export to the Middle East.

Ms. Hobbs canceled Fondomonte’s leases on state land; the company is appealing. In a statement, Fondomonte said it continues to farm on other properties and uses “innovative ways to reduce water consumption.” The company has said it is the third-largest private employer in the countyand generates $145 million annually in economic activity for the state.

Ms. Mayes told the crowd in Wenden that she was investigating whether she could sue to stop the large farms. She argued that the erosion, road damage, falling water tables and other damage created by huge farms could potentially violate Arizona’s nuisance laws.

Holly Irwin, a county supervisor who described herself as a “staunch Republican,” said La Paz had gotten no help under Arizona’s previous administration, led by a Republican.

“It’s a relief,” she said. “We have a governor who’s listening, and paying attention to water.”

Several people who attended the town hall said they disliked the mega-farms, but they reserved their true ire for Phoenix and other fast-growing cities. Urban areas are hunting for new sources of water as drought and climate change threaten the Colorado River’s supply.

Phoenix once owned land in La Paz, but officials said it has sold it all and has no water rights in the area anymore. Buckeye and Queen Creek, two Phoenix suburbs, however, have each spent millions of dollars to buy water from private landowners in rural Arizona to serve their growth.

Ms. Mayes said her office took sides with La Paz and other western Arizona counties that sued to block the water transfer to Queen Creek from a farm along the Colorado.

Rob McDermott, who runs a mobile home park serving snowbirds, said Arizona’s water crisis became a top issue after his 600-foot well went dry two years ago. He spent $120,000 digging a deeper one. He said he supported Democratic officials’ efforts to crack down on large farms and a proposal from Ms. Mayes to temporarily stop new deep-well drilling.

“You’ve got to slow it down,” he said.

But he was also concerned about illegal immigration and fentanyl being smuggled north through Arizona, and said he was likely to vote for Mr. Trump this November.

Other residents said much of the same. Guillermo Palma, 51, a retired teacher and school maintenance worker, arrived in La Paz when his family emigrated from Mexico City four decades ago. He grew up chopping weeds in what were then cotton fields, bought a home and raised a family. The water crisis threatens it all, he said.

“If they deplete it, this town dries up,” he said. “We lose everything.”

He said he agreed with Ms. Mayes “100 percent” when it comes to groundwater, and ranked maintaining the county’s infrastructure as a top priority, but said he would almost certainly vote for Mr. Trump this year. “I’m not a Biden guy,” he said.

The Arizona Democratic Party said it is trying to win back rural voters this year by holding town halls to talk about water, rural jobs and other issues. But several left-leaning voters around La Paz County said they hesitated even to admit that they vote Democratic after Mr. Trump’s 2016 win.

Gloria Ramirez, 75, whose parents moved to Wenden from Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1960s to work in the fields, said the dropping groundwater levels have her worried for the future of the town.

“My house is lower,” she said. “The ground is splitting.”

A Democrat, she attended the meeting with Ms. Mayes and her conservative neighbors, and plans to vote in November. But like many voters, she said that the political climate had gotten so toxic that she was tuning out election news. She avoids even discussing the politics of water, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden around town.

Instead, she prefers to string glass and beads into peace-sign art, and spend her weekends camping in the mountains, where the green alfalfa fields end and the desert reclaims the land.

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