But the fact that agriculture is the largest water user doesn’t mean that its water use is water waste. When you look at Arizona’s budget by category, education is by far the largest portion of spending – including higher education, about 70% of our state’s budget is dedicated to schools. But the public outcry of the past few years hasn’t been to fund schools less because they have so much already. To the contrary, it has been to find ways to give more resources to schools, because they are necessary, important, and good parts of our society. here’s no denying that agriculture is the largest water user in Arizona. So perhaps it’s understandable that, whenever the issue of water shortage arises, there is a temptation to go immediately to agriculture and demand that it find ways to reduce its water footprint.
Similarly, agriculture produces the food that feeds our families and the fiber that keeps them clothed. It creates wildlife habitat and maintains open space. Those are necessary, important, and good things, and it makes sense to dedicate even scarce resources to them.
Folks often opine about our farmers growing what they call “thirsty crops,” like alfalfa, in our arid climate. There are good reasons, both economic and environmental, that these crops are grown here in Arizona. Let’s take alfalfa as an example. Alfalfa is rarely used for human consumption, but it is a key element in feed for cattle, both dairy and beef. Dairy and beef are important sources of affordable nutrition for families across the state. Without locally grown alfalfa, the dairy and cattle feeding industries would have to rely on alfalfa from other states. This would drive up transportation costs and fuel consumption, making milk and beef products less affordable and increasing the industry’s carbon footprint. Growing alfalfa in our backyard allows our dairy and beef industries to thrive, and offers consumers a truly locally-grown product with a minimized environmental footprint.
Overall, crops in Arizona are being grown using less water than ever before. Farmers and ranchers across the state have invested millions of dollars into systems for conserving water, and implemented the latest in technological and scientific advances to make sure that every drop of water they use is used to its fullest potential.
Since we’re talking about alfalfa, let’s turn to another water-waste argument we often hear – agriculture exports Arizona’s water. By using it to grow alfalfa or other crops, and then shipping those crops out of state or out of the country, the argument is that agriculture doesn’t just use water, it exports water out of the state entirely.
Setting aside the hydrological inaccuracies of that argument, even the economic realities of it fall flat. Water is critical for almost any Arizona product. Let’s use microchips as an example. Some estimates show that it takes nearly 8 gallons of water to produce a single microchip. Yet, when Arizona welcomes a new tech manufacturer into town, no one complains. Why? These enhance our quality of life and contribute to our ability to gather information, communicate with one another, and transact business no matter where we are. Making them in Arizona means that we are creating jobs and paying taxes to support things like roads and schools. It is necessary to use water to create these products.
Similarly, it is good and necessary to use water to cultivate food and fiber. While we can in fact live without the modern convenience of a cell phone and cloud storage, we cannot live without food. And, even when those agricultural products are shipped out of state, or even out of the country, the fact that they are produced in Arizona means that they are sustaining jobs, tax revenue, and other economic activity.
Our economy, our pocketbooks, our environment, and our stomachs all benefit when agriculture is strong. Agricultural water use is an example of how we can use a resource responsibly to do even more good. So remember – not all water use is water waste.
Stefanie Smallhouse is president of the Arizona Farm Bureau.