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Drought plan implementation must emphasize sustainability

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Arizona barely met the federal deadline to approve a Drought Contingency Plan for the lower Colorado River basin. At stake is the threat of a serious water shortage affecting the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, which are heavily dependent on the over-taxed Colorado River.

The plan as presented is a policy statement that also provides allocations that may top $280 million for designated projects to curtail unwarranted dipping into the Colorado River. These projects include tapping ground water via wells along with numerous other concessions to the farmers, who are represented by a disproportionally powerful lobby.  The current plan is widely criticized by conservationists as it lacks specific provisions to promote water conservation.

John Newport

John Newport

To guide implementation Gov. Doug Ducey has reinstituted a Water Augmentation Council under auspices of the Department of Water Resources. The council will include the various stakeholders, charged with forging a workable consensus.

A major sticking point consists of rigid demands presented by the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, which to date has demonstrated a decided lack of willingness to alter current farming practices. To place the issue in perspective, agriculture is by far the largest user of water in the state, consuming 74 percent of our supply, in contrast to the 21 percent used by municipalities. Furthermore the vast majority of agricultural yields are extremely water-intensive.

Responsible implementation of Arizona’s plan must fully take into account a landmark report recently issued by the UN Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  This report unequivocally warns that the world stands on the brink of imminent failure in holding global warming to “acceptable” levels, and that nations will need to take unprecedented action over the next decade to drastically curtail practices that trigger climate change. 

Accordingly I submit that our plan implementation should emphasize ensuring a sustainable water supply while also considering options that might promote more appropriate agricultural land usage.

For sake of illustration let’s consider the impact of cotton production.  Arizona’s cotton yield averages approximately 600,000 bales per year or 13 million KG, with each Kg requiring roughly 10,000 liters of irrigated water.  While 65 percent of U.S. grown cotton is produced without irrigation predominantly in the South and Southeast, arid regions require extensive irrigation.  From a long range perspective it would appear prudent to consider possibly scaling down our cotton production in favor of less water intensive crops.

Cattle

Land for grazing, largely by cattle, makes up 98 percent of Arizona’s agricultural land, with cropland accounting for only 2 percent. Arizona’s beef industry manages 71 percent of the state’s cattle and calf inventory. The aggregate number of calves and cattle totals approximately 1 million. Both beef and dairy cows comprise a large portion of the state’s agricultural yield, according to the Arizona Beef Council.

Beef consumption nationwide has been declining since the mid-1970s, which many speculate is largely attributable to health concerns, according to Fortune Magazine.  While beef is obviously a mainstay of Arizona’s agricultural industry, one would be remiss to overlook serious environmental concerns associated with beef production.

It takes 1,800 hundred gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.  By comparison, the water footprints for soybeans and corn are 216 and 108 gallons respectively.  Of equal or even greater concern from an ecological perspective is the amount of methane released in beef production. Methane is 85 times more heat trapping than CO2, and every two cows produce the same amount of methane emissions as one gas-powered vehicle.  A 2006 United Nations report stated that “raising cattle for food produces more gas emissions than the entire transportation industry combined.” 

The above remarks are not intended to cast aspersion on our state’s beef farmers, most of whom are undoubtedly paying homage to a time honored family tradition. Likewise, my critique is by no means unique to Arizona, which accounts for a relatively small proportion of our nation’s total beef production. Rather, my observations and recommendations are intended to promote a constructive dialog concerning how we can conserve our water supply while adjusting our agricultural focus to meet dramatically changing needs and circumstances.

I recommend that the Water Augmentation Council comprise a broad and diverse representation of all stakeholders, including agricultural and climate scientists, public health professionals, and concerned citizens representing our state’s mainstream population, including parents, teachers, community leaders and – yes – our children.  Ideally I would see the implementation strategy as encompassing sequential targets set for five, 10 and even 15 year intervals in recognition of realistic time frames required to accomplish an effective transition.

In closing, as a septuagenarian with five grandchildren and four great grandchildren I have a strong vested interest in preserving a sustainable environment for future generations. We all need to serve as wise and compassionate stewards of this beautiful planet we have been blessed with.

John Newport is a former senior level research associate at the UCLA School of Public Health and an author and socio-political commentator/activist based in Tucson.

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