Agriculture in a desert: Arizona farmers’ water-conservation efforts pay off

Agriculture is still the predominant user of water in Arizona, but data show that conservation efforts have led to a decline in the amount of water being used by Arizona’s agriculture industry. the reason: Farmers are becoming better at conserving water.

Arizona gets water from four major sources: The Colorado River, surface water (including lakes and streams), groundwater and reclaimed water. Water distribution is generally split into four major categories: municipal, industrial, agriculture and Indian tribes.

It might seem surprising that most of the water in a largely desert state like Arizona’s goes toward agriculture, but the state has around 15,500 farms, according to the 2012 State Agriculture Overview. The Arizona Department of Water Resources says about 69 percent of water goes to agriculture. But in the past, this number has been as high as 90 percent.

water chartWhile growing crops in a desert may seem counterintuitive, the Arizona Farm Bureau estimates Arizona agriculture to be a $12.4 billion industry. Arizona’s biggest crops include lettuce, cotton, hay and citrus.

Arizona’s climate is an important factor in farming. Despite scorching temperatures in the summers throughout much of the state, the warm winters allow for crops to grow all year, creating what has been called the country’s longest growing season. And efforts dating back to the 1980s to eradicate boll weevils from the area have made Arizona a great location to grow cotton.

Experts say that advances in technology and conservation efforts within the industry have contributed to the falling demand for agricultural use of water.

The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center recently held its annual water conference. Entitled “Closing the Gap Between Water Supply and Demand,” the conference featured panels with many water experts.

Tom Davis, the general manager for the Yuma County Water Users’ Association, spoke about Yuma farmers’ water efficiency. The mild winters, long growing season and fertile soil help put Yuma County as the third-largest vegetable producer in the nation.

According to data Davis presented, Yuma farmers’ irrigation methods are very efficient, using just enough water to keep their crops – such as a variety of lettuce and citrus – alive. The exception, Davis said, is citrus crops. The sandy soil these crops are grown in does not retain water sufficiently, so more water is used.

“If our farmers can be any more efficient, they will be,” Davis said.

However, Davis said if cuts were made to agricultural water supplies, farmers might have to resort to genetically modifying their crops to be viable with less water.

According to Mitch Basefsky, a spokesman for the Central Arizona Project, which channels Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, farmers have a lower priority for CAP water than municipal customers or the tribes. This means they’re facing a loss of up to 60 percent of their water supply if the drought worsens and the CAP supply is cut, as officials say might be likely in coming years. However, Basefsky said farmers could turn to using more groundwater, or lease water from a higher priority user.

Pam Nagel, supervisor of the Planning and Data Management Section at the Arizona Department of Water Resources, says there are many factors that have contributed agriculture more efficient use of water in Ariona.

Inside the five Active Management Areas, which include Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz, Nagel said some farm operations have been going out of production, which accounts for some of the decrease in demand.

“Crop types have also changed,” Nagel added. “Farmers are planting different crops than they did 50 years ago and that has affected the amount of water they consume.”

Despite the increase in Arizona’s population, the residential water demand hasn’t dramatically increased, also because of better conservation.

“A lot of cities have seen that their water demand has stayed flat because of water conservation,” Nagel said. Nagel said much of the plumbing used in the state for new homes and buildings is now very water conservative.

Overall, residents are more likely than ever to realize that better water-use habits are a priority, especially with dire predictions about the declining flow of the Colorado River. “Less people are using grass for their lawns and many are turning to low-water landscaping,” Nagel said. “There are also fewer people with swimming pools and many who had them are getting rid of them.”

Industry, mainly consisting of mining and power generation, makes up a small portion of the water demand, using about 6 percent. However, about 70 percent of water used to generate power is reclaimed.

Nagel said the state water resources agency has no authority over the tribes. Tribal entities are not required to report water usage, so estimates of water use on reservations are unreliable. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 22 tribes in the state are concentrated in some of the areas hardest hit by the drought.

The Central Arizona Project is an important component to settling Indian water rights claims, however.

With the Arizona Water Settlements Act, 47 percent of CAP water is designated for Indian water-rights settlements. There are currently 12 tribes with allocations but there are more with proposed partial settlements pending in Congress.

However, CAP does not do business directly with the tribes. By law, tribal nations must contract with the U.S. Department of the Interior to receive CAP water. They use water from the Colorado River for municipal purposes, farming, or leasing to cities.

While nine tribes have partial or completed settlements, there remain many with unresolved claims. There are currently two tribes with proposed settlements waiting in Congress and 11 with unresolved water rights claims.

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