Drought and the defense of precious water rights topped the discussion as Rim Country ranchers gathered for their annual Gila County Cattle Growers Association meeting and barbecue.

In a twist of history, a drought in 1934 triggered the original formation of the Gila County Cattle Growers Association (GCCGA).

The modern day GCCGA website says that “cooperation with neighbors is essential for survival in times of adversity and adds to peace of mind in times of prosperity.”

Numerous speakers recognized that due to pasture, rangeland and forage insurance and legislative intervention by GCCGA and the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, local ranchers survived a drought so severe 90-year-old locals have never seen anything like it.

“If it weren’t for that drought insurance, we would have been selling a lot of cows,” said outgoing GCCGA President Woody Cline.

Jill Wilson, a Farm Bureau agent, said one rancher only survived because of the insurance.

“A rancher that was not here today, he told me he had the ranch for 41 years. If it weren’t for this program and this insurance, he said he would have lost the ranch,” she said, her voice brimming with emotion.

The government calls the insurance Pasture, Rangeland, and Forage Insurance. This insurance protects the rancher against a loss of forage from a lack of rain.

It works by analyzing rainfall predictions based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center data.

Once the predictions for rain fall below a certain level the rancher knows will affect the growth of grass and edible plant on his range, the insurance kicks in.

In addition to the insurance, ranchers relied on the lobbying efforts of the GCCGA and the state organization to limit passage of laws infringing on rural water rights.

Jay Whetten, president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said he joined Governor Doug Ducey’s water committee and made in-roads.

“We have some really serious issues out there — water being one ... I’m on the governor’s water committee,” he said. “This year they seem to have a little more inclusive attitude. A lot more people can comment on what is going on.”

However, a recent Arizona Supreme Court decision favoring new development even in an overtaxed aquifer has brought the water battle to a boil.

“We are very, very interested in maintaining our water rights,” said Whetten. “We are against any water metering (on private wells). We do not want water transferred from one water aquifer to another aquifer.”

Dave Cook, a Republican state legislator representing southern Gila County said he is working on legislation and lobbying to keep water coming to farmers and ranchers.

“They thought they could change the water laws in this state ... (yet) ... there are 60 legislators like me,” he said. “It is working better because they are listening — so we keep farmers farming. They wanted to shut the water away from the farmers.”

Termed-out legislator Brenda Barton said she also helped to keep water flowing to the ranchers.

“We did actually stop some really bad water bills,” she said. “We need to continue to do that. We need to stop those crazy people down in Maricopa.”

The ranchers learned they have an unlikely ally in Terry Herndon of the Arizona Mule Deer Organization.

He said the needs of mule deer and cattle may coincide. Ranchers keep stock ponds full even if that means driving miles with water. This also benefits wildlife.

“We take pride in working with ranchers ... we haven’t met too many ranchers out there that don’t care about wildlife,” he said.

He came to the meeting with an offer to the ranchers.

“The message we want to bring to you today — we would like to partner with ranches,” he said. “We donated 386 solar panels from APS (because) there’s a lot of these windmills that are not getting fixed. We like to keep the mule deer healthy, which keeps the cattle healthy.”

contact the reporter at: mnelson@payson.com

I cover the Town of Payson, courts, wildfire, business, families, non-profits, the environment and investigative reporting

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