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Farm News & Views for the week of April 15, 2024

Last week, I reported that Arizona farmers are facing significant cuts to their irrigation water allocations due to one of the longest droughts in the last 1,200 years. While the Colorado River system supplies about 36% of Arizona’s total water use, farmers and ranchers throughout the Colorado River Basin are in the spotlight because agriculture accounts for almost three fourths of the Basin’s water use. Although agriculture is sometimes cast as the villain concerning water shortages because of the amount of water allocated to crop production, according to the American Rivers organization, the Colorado River provides drinking water for one in ten Americans, nourishes cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix, and the lower half of the river waters almost 90 percent of the nation's winter vegetables.

While surface water rights in Arizona are similar to Colorado’s water rights, in Arizona, groundwater is mostly excluded from regulation except for a couple of areas. Last year when it was revealed that Saudi-Arabia-owned farms west of Phoenix were pumping large amounts of groundwater to grow alfalfa hay that was exported to Saudi Arabia to feed cows, the public reacted to both the questionable deal given to the Saudis, and their understanding that Arizona farmers are growing 350,000 acres of alfalfa,and almost 200,000 acres of cotton, both of which require a lot of water. Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, points out that Arizona farmers are facing increasing public pressure to cut groundwater usage for growing crops, and to reduce the amount of irrigation water,supplied by the Colorado River, by moving away from growing crops that have high water requirements. Porter is concerned that farmers are being “demonized” for growing crops like alfalfa, even though it is a rational choice based on a farmer’s water rights and water availability and based on a healthy marker for the crop” She also added, “It would be worrisome if someone other than the grower, who is the expert on the crop choice, was making a call about what to grow.”

But all is not gloom and doom in the Basin. Porter pointed out that there is some good news from a study of the Basin that found that in the last four years, even though water levels in the Colorado River reservoirs have declined, water demand has also decreased by about 18%, while the population has increased by 24%. Also, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson reclaimed about 93% of the water that entered the waste water treatment systems in those cities. Porter speculated that maybe the cities are getting better at growing their populations while using less water.

As we look at some of the challenges that Arizona agricultural producers are facing, farmers and ranchers in the rest of the Colorado River Basin may face similar challenges if good solutions that work for both Basin agricultural producers and everyone else who has a stake in using Colorado River water resources are not worked out. It is likely that if most of the agricultural producers in the Basin aren’t open to working on solutions that lead to a healthy river system, the river won’t work for either agricultural producers or urban interests.

Elvis Presely said, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”

Bob has been an agricultural educator and farm and ranch management consultant for over 40 years in southwest Colorado. He writes about agricultural issues from his farm near Cortez, and has helped to produce farm reports on KSJD for more than a dozen years.