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Using the Sun to Help Ease the Drought

Lake Mead drought levels

When faced with extreme challenges, creativity can shine. An Arizona tribe is shining one of those creation solutions by using solar panels to not only provide power but also to protect a depleted drinking water source.

“Nobody’s ever done this before,” David DeJong told National Public Radio.

DeJong is the director of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project in the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, Arizona.

Pima (Akimel O’odham) and Maricopa (Pee-Posh) are two tribes who live in that community of approximately 12,000. The reservation was established in 1859 and formally recognized by Congress in 1939.

The tribe is constructing a solar farm, which could eventually become its prominent source of energy. But the genius of the project is where the crews put them. The panels will cover about 3,000 feet of the Casa Blanca Irrigation Canal.

That should shield the waterway from some of the sun’s intense rays and protect the diminished flow.

DeJong told NPR, “We’re pretty confident we’re going to be able to reduce evaporative losses by at least 50%, possibly by as high as two-thirds.”

Evaporation further challenges water supplies in the region, where the climate is dry. The Central Arizona Project estimated that “average annual evaporation loss during a normal, non-shortage year is approximately 4.5 percent, or 16,000-acre feet from the aqueduct and 50,000- acre feet from Lake Pleasant.

RELATED: Central Arizona Project provides additional information on evaporation in the area. Read that here. 

If successful, the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project could provide a less expensive source of energy for the community. The reservation has serious economic challenges for neighbors. The per capita income is about $16,000, which is only about 40 percent of the national average. The median income of approximately $35,000 is less than half the national rate. And the poverty level is triple the U.S. average.

And while the potential cost savings for families would be welcome, so would protecting the water supply thanks to the cover the solar panels provide. Agriculture felt the brunt of an especially dry 2023. The state received a “Tier 2A shortage” rating for the first time.

LEARN MORE: The Central Arizona Project breaks down what constitutes a Tier 2A water shortage. Read that here. 

Tier 2A status came because of the dry year, which reduced the Colorado River water supply by 34 percent. That amount of water would serve about 169,000 homes for a year. 2024’s forecast is slightly better.

Arizona dropped to a “Tier 1 shortage.” That would represent an 18 percent reduction from its Colorado River water allocation.


Lake Meade Surface Elevation Drought Graph

(Illustration courtesy: Central Arizona Project.)

Arizona residents have been dealing with water challenges for the past two decades. And that left the state with a choice: It could either reduce water consumption on its own or wait until the federal government forced it to make changes. Last fall Arizona joined California and Nevada and agreed to reduce water use by at least 3 million acre-feet through 2026. That voluntary agreement eased the concerns of federal officials.

“Based on the latest hydrologic data, federal water managers (with the U.S. Department of the Interior) concluded the three Lower Basin states’ plan to reduce water use by millions of acre-feet is sufficient to keep major reservoirs from reaching critically low levels and prevent additional water cuts — at least temporarily,” reported the Idaho Capital Sun in October.

RELATED: An Idaho Capital Sun article includes additional information on what the area is doing to deal with depleted water supplies. It also discusses the discussions ahead for Arizona and other states on a new water. Read that here. 

Part of the commitment to use less water included providing payment to homeowners to get rid of their grass lawns. Some communities have been offering payments to do that since the 1980s, as detailed in this report from the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.  

Payments have become more lucrative these days. Scottsdale, for example, offers up to $5,000 for homeowners who replace their grass lawn with an alternative that requires far less water. Fox 10 Phoenix has this story about the incentive, as well as what other cities are offering for the switch. 

Funding plays an instrumental role in various regional plans to reduce water consumption. Last April the Biden administration announced $15.4 billion in funding for the region as part of The Inflation Reduction Act.

Included in that announcement was the funding for the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project -- the unique undertaking at the Gila River Indian Reservation – which offers hope of economic and environmental benefits for a community in a part of the weather-challenged country that could use the assistance.   

Here is part of that announcement:

“Up to $233 million in water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community, including $83 million for a water pipeline project that will reuse approximately 20,000 acre-feet of water per year and help shore up elevations at Lake Mead. An additional $50 million from the Inflation Reduction Act through Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program will also save 125,000 acre-feet of water this year and provide similar investment and water saving opportunities in 2024 and 2025 for the benefit of the Colorado River System.”


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