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Water rationing for farmers? It’s on the horizon

Our Turn: Arizona is prioritizing water for cities over farmers. And that’s a bad idea for us all.


Regional water planners last month made a prediction that will likely be a game-changer for Arizona’s economy, revealing just how water scarcity will restructure the future of our food security. As early as 2017, drought in the Lower Colorado River’s watershed could lead to irrigation rationing for central Arizona agriculture.

Planners suggest that Arizona’s farms irrigated by Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs through Central Arizona Project and Salt River canals could lose as much as 60 percent of their share of water over the next decade. By 2026, officials predict that water rationing will hit Tucson and Phoenix, as it already has nine other Southwestern cities.

Water scarcity will be the driver of our food security from now on.

Between the 2007 and 2012 agricultural censuses, Arizona lost 112,000 acres in irrigated farmlands. Maricopa County’s land dedicated to food production has been in steady decline since 1954; less than 200,000 of the county’s acres remain in irrigated crops, and much of that is fiber and forage crops.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are holding less than 45 percent of their historic volumes, and drought continues unabated in most of the headwaters of the Colorado River’s tributaries. As the Colorado River’s water allocations are being restructured, we must painfully recognize that Arizona’s food farmers have been placed in the lowest priorities.

And yet, we have heard our state’s self-appointed water czar, Grady Gammage, claim that Arizonans should not be concerned about facing a water shortage because agricultural water can be used as a “buffer” to meet urban needs. In fact, Gammage claims we have no state mandate to preserve local food production, even though other states have done so in the name of fostering sustainability and maintaining agricultural heritage. Nowhere in Gammage’s recent “Watering the Sun Corridor” does he mention allocating water to ensure food security.

In this sense, Gammage aligns with most of Arizona’s historic water brokers who favor new homes and lawns over feeding our nutritionally-insecure population.

For decades, food-security issues have hardly received attention in discussions of Arizona’s water future — as if we will always be able to “outsource” our food supplies from Mexico, adjacent states or reservation lands within our state. And yet, 38 percent of the lower 48 states are currently suffering from drought and water shortages, as is northwest Mexico’s breadbasket in Sonora and Sinaloa.



In California, irrigation water prices have risen from $320 an acre foot to as much as $2,000 as a result of just three years of drought conditions.

Last year, farmers lost $1.7 billion in reduced yields, and 15,000 Californians in the agricultural sector lost their jobs.

There will simply be no place in North America from which Arizonans can outsource food if such conditions continue.

Surprisingly, Arizona residents seem to be more far-sighted on such issues. In a statewide poll conducted by Fred Solop of Northern Arizona University, 59 percent of Arizonans surveyed strongly support reserving Arizona’s water for local food production, while 33 percent felt it somewhat important to consider local food production in the future allocations of Arizona’s water supplies.

We are not suggesting farmers should use as much water as they wish; they must be given incentives to adopt water-saving strategies. Philanthropist Howard Buffett, who farms in Cochise County, recently said, “I don’t believe there should be a single acre of flood irrigation (for row crops) in Arizona. If we fully adopt drip and center pivot systems, it is realistic for Arizona farmers to cut their water use in half.”

Gary Nabhan
Gary Nabhan

While Buffett considers drip irrigation, laser leveling and crop rotations as part of his suite of solutions, others turn to rainwater, gray water and storm water. Few, however, still think we can squeeze more irrigation water out of the aquifer below ground or the already compromised rivers trickling across it.

Some look to desert-adapted seedstocks, selected or bred by farmers themselves, as a part of solving this puzzle. Still others reassess how we define and manage the entire water supply system — including water “embedded” in every link in the food supply chain — to cut losses and grow lasting solutions.

No matter the mix of intelligence, technologies, seed biodiversity and drought stress detection systems that must transform our fields, orchards, vineyards, pastures and homes, one thing is painfully clear: We have already “bounced” most checks written on our water-savings account, and a time of hard choices is upon us. Isn’t it time to ask Arizonans what kind of food and water future they desire?

Wouldn’t it be better to democratically decide how much of the state’s water should be directed to growing local, desert-adapted, nutritious food that can also keep our rising health-care costs down?

Rafael de Grenade (Photo: handout)
Rafael de Grenade (Photo: handout)

Shouldn’t we face the complex issues of water scarcity, food security and poverty, including the skyrocketing costs for farmers of accessing and pumping water, and the fossil-fuel costs of food transportation that all contribute to higher food prices? While forage and fiber production now dominate agricultural production in some counties, it may be strategic to shift irrigation priorities to watering food crops, which can help relocalize Arizona’s food system.

Although we never expect more than a quarter of the food eaten by Arizonans to be grown in state, we nevertheless need to dedicate water to producing both plant and animal foods, which can reduce, rather than exacerbate, the rising food costs and health problems currently plaguing our residents.

The choices are ours to make.

Gary Paul Nabhan, a University of Arizona professor, is author of “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land,” and Rafael de Grenade is a post-doctoral research associate on transboundary water security at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at UA.

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