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Arizona farmers must use less water to survive. Here are 5 things to do differently

Gary Paul Nabhan / AZCentral

A profound reduction in the Colorado River water earmarked for Arizona’s crops has at last triggered the rationing that irrigation farmers have dreaded. The Tier 1 shortage will prompt a 512,000-acre-foot reduction in Arizona’s Colorado River deliveries.

That amounts to about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply. Extrapolating from University of Arizona studies, it will result in a decrease of about $100 million in farmgate sales, and much more if the indirect effects are fully factored in.

If your own access to water – or your annual income – was cut by nearly a third, I’d guess you would call that a crisis. In Pinal County alone, this will immediately trigger the loss of 500 jobs.

That is only the start of the agricultural disruptions brought on by climatic changes.

No one wants to mandate these changes

To be clear, this dilemma is not merely brought about by drought conditions in Arizona, but by watershed-wide declines in snowpack as well as devastating heat waves. In fact, many Arizona farms and ranches received better than average rains in 2021, so it will be hard to justify drought disaster relief payments to offset these losses.

Given the complex Colorado River pacts that govern how seven U.S states and two Mexican states must allocate available water, it will be difficult if not impossible for Arizona’s farmers to “exert local control” over water allocation volumes.

Instead, it is time to search for solutions other than drilling into overtapped aquifers or buying water from other states or from Indian nations.

No one I know wants to mandate that Arizona farmers shift to more water-efficient irrigation technologies or more water-conserving crops. That is why Arizona farmers must be open to reeducating themselves and retooling their operations to produce high-quality products more efficiently if they are to keep out of debt.

But to make it through this transition, farmers must ask for tangible help from the USDA and the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Business as usual simply won’t cut it.

Farmers will need to expand their horizons and tighten down their faucets, even more than they have done over the last three decades, as they successfully cut average per-acre water use by a fifth. 

Farmers must learn to adapt. Here’s how

To be sure, a narrow focus on water scarcity will not get them though this climate crisis. They need summer crops that can tolerate record temperatures during flowering and fruiting. They must reduce or reverse salinization of their soils.

They must sequester more carbon with perennial crops that also offer more stable yields and reduced tillage costs. And they must repair or replace antiquated infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to floods, wildfires and lingering heat regimes.  

For such reasons, Arizona’s farmers and ranchers need to work with other sectors to build deeper climate change resilience in Arizona’s food system.

Here are a few ways to better adapt to the “new normal” that will forever change how farming and ranching are done in our state:

  1.  Invest in low-tech, low-cost, super-efficient microirrigation systems that use up to 90% less water while producing healthier crops with fewer weeds.
  2.  Invest in agrivoltaic systems that produce food crops grown under solar collectors to reduce heat stress and water use while co-generating renewable energy for on-farm income.
  3. Give producers incentives for growing perennial succulent crops like agaves and prickly pear cactus fruit that use one-fifth of the water for the same amount of edible biomass as corn or sorghum. These novel crops offer hypoglycemic foods and beverages that can prevent or slow the diabetes endemic in our state.
  4. Lobby the U.S. Senate and House to fully fund a Desert Agriculture and Climate Adaptation Center, including a National Arid Land Plant Genetic Resource Unit to select and release arid-adapted crop varieties.
  5. Encourage ranchers to use heat-tolerant breeds like Criollo cattle and Churro sheep, as well as antioxidants in salt blocks to sustain livestock production.

Future farms and ranches may look nothing like they have in the past, and the foods produced may taste different from what we grew up with.

But if we want Arizona-grown foods to have a future at all, it behooves us to vote with our pocketbooks by purchasing high-value products from agriculturalists who are willing to innovate rather than vainly defending the status quo.

Gary Paul Nabhan is the W.K., Kellogg endowed chair for food and water security at the University of Arizona. His latest book is “Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized in Our Food System.”

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