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Sustaining Water

Water rationing for farmers will threaten our region’s food security

Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” is caused by water levels that have dropped 145 feet below their peak of 1,225 in 1983. Water rationing is triggered at 1,075 feet.
Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” is caused by water levels that have dropped 145 feet below their peak of 1,225 in 1983. Water rationing is triggered at 1,075 feet.

This summer, regional water planners announced a game-changer for Arizona’s economy and already-fragile food security status. As early as 2017, we are likely to see the rationing of river irrigation water available for Arizona agriculture as a result of the pervasive drought that has plagued the Colorado River watershed for most of the last 15 years. Planners concede that Arizona’s farms irrigated from canals coming off the Colorado and its tributaries could lose as much as 60 percent of their share of water over the next decade. That’s not all. By 2026, mandatory water rationing may constrain urban food production in both Tucson and Phoenix, as it has already done in nine other Southwestern cities.

Despite this startling news, many Arizonans continue to see few connections between climate change and water and food security in the state, since they assume that we will always be able to “outsource” our food from Mexico and California at affordable prices (98 percent of the food we eat in Arizona today comes from other states). But we are soon likely to see skyrocketing food prices for those “nutritional imports,” as farmers in neighboring states are already facing the consequences of water scarcity.

To the south of us, Sonoran agriculture has been hit with droughts so devastating there is now a political war over urban versus agricultural water allocation. Hermosillo has initiated interbasin water transfers of river supplies formerly reserved for farming in southern Sonora. As a result, Yaqui women have taken to the streets, banging cooking spoons against comales to protest the loss of irrigation water needed to irrigate crops to feed their families.

To the west, in drought-ravaged California, irrigation water prices have risen in less than five years from $320 an acre foot to as much as $2,000 an acre foot. Last year, California farmers, orchardists, and vintners lost $1.7 billion in reduced yields, resulting in 15,000 jobs lost from their state’s agricultural sector.

In New Mexico, pecan and chile farmers who historically received enough river water for eight to 10 annual crop irrigations are now receiving just one irrigation’s worth of water from Elephant Butte Reservoir. And so they have begun drilling hundreds of new wells, many of them with water so salty that scientists are concerned about generating saline soil crusts and diminished yields.

With 38 percent of the lower 48 states suffering from drought, heat waves, and water shortages that point to accelerating climate change, there will soon be few places in North America from which Arizonans can access fresh, affordable food. Water and fossil fuel prices have increased farmers’ production costs to the degree that climate change has become a key factor in raising the prices of nutritious foodstuffs out of reach of the poor. As we remain woefully unprepared for the impacts of accelerated climate change on our food supply, we must realize that “food outsourcing” is becoming a less viable option than ever before.

In Baja Arizona, much of our agricultural water goes toward growing cotton, livestock forages, and nuts for export rather than for food that remains in the state. As many of our farmers cling to producing crops that don’t directly feed us, groundwater levels in the Upper Santa Cruz River Basin have been dropping an average of two feet per year. At the same time, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are holding less than 45 percent of their historic volumes. Between 2007 and 2012, as urban and suburban growth usurp water formerly dedicated to crop production, Arizona lost 112,000 acres in irrigated farmlands. In the Green Valley farmscape, agricultural production is likely to forfeit roughly 10,000 acre feet over the next decade, while urban water consumption will rise by that same amount over the same period.

We are diminishing our own food production capacity to feed ourselves every time we permanently remove water from foodscapes to support growth in our urban hardscapes.

We are not suggesting that Baja Arizona’s farmers and gardeners be allowed to use as much water as they wish. On the contrary, they must be given financial incentives and technical guidance in adopting water saving strategies. As Cochise County farmer and philanthropist Howard Buffett recently told us, “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 waste in half.”

While Buffett has already implemented water-saving technologies such as drip irrigation, modified center-pivot irrigation, laser leveling, and crop rotations as part of his suite of solutions, others are working to better use rainwater, graywater, and stormwater. Still others look to desert-adapted seedstocks, selected or bred by farmers themselves, as ways to forge lasting solutions. No single solution is enough to reduce the total amount of water “embedded” in every link in the food supply chain—to cut water waste and to grow lasting solutions.

Isn’t it time that we face the water scarcity in our midst, and foster a culture that values water conservation and food security? Is it possible to better utilize our desert-adapted food biodiversity to alleviate the poverty and hunger that still plagues so many southern Arizonans?

We need to challenge the economic and political forces that have led us to pretend we do not already have an unsustainable water supply, and to find ways to better grow, distribute, and utilize the foods of this place without excessive water waste.


Gary Paul Nabhan is author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. Rafael de Grenade is the author of Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback. They both work on water and food security issues at the University of Arizona, through the Southwest Center and the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, respectively.


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