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Why You Won’t Hear That Arizona Has a Water and Agriculture Crisis

Gary Nabhan

You will never hear the words “water crisis” in the Arizona state government, Salt River or Central Arizona Project. And yet, elsewhere in the Colorado River watershed, they are forging solutions to the current water crisis to assure the future of water and food security for their citizens.

The fact the reservoirs on the Colorado River which store irrigation water for our farms have hit their lowest levels has not prompted our state’s Department of Agriculture, or Farm Bureau to say the word “crisis” in public.

No matter that the recently-announced Tier 1 shortage will result in a dramatic cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River – about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply. That means that about 18% of Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River supplies will be cut, and that alone amounts to almost 8% of Arizona’s total water use.  Just north of Tucson—in Pinal County– irrigation farmers will have to fallow more acreage, shift to less water-consumptive crops, or turn to already-imperiled groundwater sources. Sadly, their days in the top 2% of all rural counties in the U.S. for their food and fiber sales are numbered.

Simply google the term “water crisis,” and add the names of different Western states. You will find over 145 to 160 million postings of articles and media postings about the water crisis in California. There are roughly 75 to 80 million postings discussing water crises in New Mexico.

Google “Arizona water crisis,” and you will see only about 40,000 postings. Our water czars decided long ago that acknowledging we have a water crisis is bad, for it might stifle development and investment in our state.

Just five years ago, the Arizona Director of Agriculture Mark Killian said this in the pages of Edible Baja Arizona: “ I would not agree that water rationing is imminent in Arizona… Fifteen years of consecutive drought conditions affect us, but I’m still optimistic.”

Under Killian’s leadership, our state has become one of the most ill-equipped in the country at planning and implementing solutions for future water and food security. If you google “California water crisis solutions,” you’ll see that the state to our West has 49 million postings on that topic compared to our meager 40 million that barely acknowledge we might have a problem.   

 If you are to have moisture in the soil and food on our tables that comes from our own state, we will need an altogether different mix of leaders to get us there. Business as usual WON’T Arizona where we need to be in terms of climate change resilience, a restorative economy, and an integrative health approach to land, water and people.   

Let’s start with some sorely needed changes:

  1. Change the name of his Governor’s Drought Interagency Coordinating Group to the Governor’s Climate Change Adaptation and Food System Resilience Work Group. Give it marching orders and funding so that Arizona farms, ranches, and institutions begin grappling with heat waves, extended drought, salinations, fires, floods and crumbling infrastructure driven by long-term climate uncertainty.
  2. Create funds to mandate participation in climate change workshops for all farmers using federal reclamation projects for irrigation. These workshops would cover a range of topics on climate readiness, including heat-tolerant, high value crops, super-efficient micro-irrigation, soil salinization reduction, on-farm energy production and carbon sequestration.
  3. Lobby the US Senate and House Committees on Agriculture and Natural Resources to fully fund and staff a National Arid Land Plant Genetic Resource Unit of the Agriculture Research Service like the one California congressmen lobbied for in Parlier, California.

All we stand to gain by allowing our policy keepers to keep their heads in the sand is a greater probability that more of Arizona will become a dry sand pile. You can’t solve a problem if you dismiss that it even exists.  

Gary Paul Nabhan is the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair for Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona. His latest books are The Nature of Desert Nature and Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized in Our Food System.

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