Where the water goes: Water in Arizonan agriculture

By Tucker Larson, Swette Center student worker. 

It’s no secret that agriculture uses a large percentage of our Earth’s fresh water supply. In Arizona, 74% of fresh water is used for agricultural purposes. That number has been as high as 90% in the mid to late 1900’s. The decrease in water consumption in Arizona’s agricultural sector can be explained by the ever-expanding urban sprawl as well as improved irrigation technologies. In 1973, Construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) began. The project, which ended in 1993, ensured a substantial amount of water that allowed for continued growth in residential, industrial and agricultural sectors. For CAP to go forward, Arizona renounced their water rights to the Colorado River from senior to junior status. This means that as soon as water restrictions begin to come into effect, Arizona will be the first to feel them. The Colorado River provides a large amount of water to Arizona’s larger cities. In Phoenix, that is two fifths of all water and in other parts of the Phoenix Valley and state, the reliance on CAP water can be much heavier.

Drought always been at the center of policy makers’ conversations surrounding Arizona’s future. Policies date back to the early 1900’s as Western expansion settlements became permanent. These water policies were put in place to support agricultural operations and ensure future water stability in the West. It is important to note that the water policies and public works projects that fragmented water ways in the West had profoundly negative impacts on Native peoples and natural ecosystems. Traditional Indigenous food systems in the Southwest built around the weather patterns of the Southwest and seasonal rainfall were permanently altered when the Southwest’s water became segmented and allocated. Native peoples still play a large role in both water policy and agriculture in Arizona as they account for over 50 percent of all agricultural operations in the state. Historically, Tribal voices have been ignored regarding water policy in the West and still Tribes across the region are fighting for legal rights to water. This changed slightly with the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) as Tribal Nations account for a large proportion of the CAP water allocation through the federal government. The DCP was enacted in 2007 to address water issues in the lower basin states of the Colorado River, Arizona, California, Nevada, parts New Mexico and a very limited portion of Northern Mexico.

There are multiple tiers to the DCP. The different tiers are based on the reservoir levels of Lake Mead. The first is tier zero, which was reached in 2020, followed by tier one, which was reached in 2021. Tier 2a, 2b and 3 follow and are associated with the lowest levels of Lake Mead and the most drastic reduction of water allocations for all lower basin states. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are impacted increasingly at each tier of the DCP while California will not receive water restrictions until tier 2b. The CAP has also created a priorities system to designate how water will be allocated as restrictions begin to get applied through the DCP. Arizona is broken up into Irrigation Districts, most of which are connected to the CAP, but others are adjacent to the Colorado River, all of which are impacted by the DCP.

So, what does this all mean for farmers in Arizona? AZ’s agricultural sector is lowest on the priorities list for water allocation. So as water quantities continue to get restricted, agricultural producers in certain irrigation districts will continue to see water cutoffs. This has already been the case for some farmers in Pinal County, just south of the Phoenix area. Some farmers in the area have groundwater rights, but these rights are determined on a case-by-case basis and are often “grandfathered” into the water rights conversation. This puts new farmers and those who do not have the grandfather rights with their backs against the wall as water cutoffs force more fields to lay fallow, reducing the potential for annual profits. As Phoenix and other larger cities continue to expand their urban sprawl, farmland is converted to residential neighborhoods, which reduces water consumption, but puts an even greater financial pressure on the farmers on the fringes of urban centers. There are policies being put into place to protect farmland in the Southern Arizona river basins where, historically, agriculture has been a mainstay. But as water cutoffs continue to increase with an uncertain future due to climate change, farmers will continue to be pressed between profits and the ability to produce a product.

New technologies are being implemented in the agricultural industry around decreasing water consumption, but they can be costly. Additionally, there is always a hesitancy to shift away from familiar products and processes. Transitioning away from flooding and sprinklers to more modern drip systems and irrigation practices decreases water use for farmers. Drought-resistant crops are also entering the market and reducing the irrigation requirement for farms. Certain crops are better suited to arid climates and reduce water needs. Some of these are specialty crops such as eggplant, okra, and a variety of herbs, while others are more prone to larger scale production like quinoa or garbanzo beans. Agriculture has taken place in arid regions far before modern intensive irrigation was common practice. Crops known to the Sonoran Desert as well as other arid and semi-arid regions have evolved to become more comfortable in hotter temperatures with less frequent watering. In extremely arid and hot regions, water efficient plants can make a big impact on a producer’s water budget.

Policymakers need further work with farmers and ranchers to ensure that water will be available for future generations. Farmers and ranchers not only produce an agricultural product, but they act as stewards of the land. They feel and see the effects of climate change and experience the financial ramifications of it first-hand. By developing policy to protect agricultural products, we also protect their land stewardship, thus helping improve biodiversity and build more resilient agrosystems. Recently, policymakers took steps to improve the ability of producers to be land stewards by making changes to the outdated “use it or lose it” policy. The original law required water to be used continuously and in a beneficial manner, otherwise the water rights of the rancher or farmer would be revoked. By allowing farmers and ranchers the ability to create a ten-year conservation plan, they can engage more formally in water conservation practices without the fear of losing their water rights down the road.

There is no one solution that can solve the West’s water issues, but we can continue to take steps in the right direction by providing farmers with the ability to improve water conservation, by holding conversations involving all stakeholders, and by developing new technologies and infrastructure that reduce excess water consumption.