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Ask the right water question

Water flows into a canal that feeds farms run by Tempe Farming Co., in Casa Grande, Ariz., Thursday, July 22, 2021. The Colorado River has been a go-to source of water for cities, tribes and farmers in the U.S. West for decades. But climate change, drought and increased demand are taking a toll. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

There are thankful ranchers across Arizona, myself included, after an extraordinary monsoon season that filled our scorched dirt tanks with water and re-seeded our rangelands with knee-high green grass. But well below the surface, and just up-stream, the drought persists.  

The past 18 months have been particularly difficult for our livestock producers and at least the next 18 months will be very tough for many of our farmers. For most in our arid state, the drought has merely been an abstract topic of conversation and moderate concern. This is not so for the dairyman looking for hay from the alfalfa farmer looking for water. Though media attention surrounding the need for water in agriculture has only recently hit the national spotlight, we have always been acutely aware of the challenges our dry climate presents. The fact that Arizona’s farmers and ranchers are so efficient with water came about by design, not by accident.  

Stefanie Smallhouse

That said, we are certainly not the only planners looking to the rivers, streams, and sky. In Arizona, we tend to tout our forward-thinking water policy and planning, even as we ponder our next big leap forward. For example, we have Active Management Areas in our more populated counties. Active Management Areas regulate the use of groundwater on farms, so it only makes sense that in rural Arizona, where we are using more groundwater than is being recharged, the solution leans toward more Active Management Areas (or AMA-like governance structures) to restrict the amount of water farmers can use – regardless of conservation practices farms already have in place. 

With the impending, and now very real, shortage on the Colorado River, the solution seems to be taking water from lower priority farm uses first (because that’s what the rules say you do) while preserving water for “high-value” uses like municipal and industrial consumption. Along the Little Colorado and Gila rivers, the multiple claims made in the ongoing adjudication have created uncertainty for Arizona’s economic future while costing litigants millions of dollars in ongoing legal fees. The solution there appears to be accelerating the process with more funding and making court determinations as soon as possible, even when those determinations send farmers to the back of the line, in spite of their historical beneficial water use. 

In Central Arizona, developers can no longer rely on local groundwater to obtain assured water supply certificates, and the solution appears to be buying water from users on the Colorado River and moving it to where the people want to be, but where the water is not.  

What do all these “solutions” have in common? None of them will curb the growing demand for water in the second fastest growing state in the nation, but all of them will jeopardize our long-term food security. A prolonged period of food abundance has clouded our reasoning in the current time of water shortages. In our efforts to manage water supplies and resolve conflicts, collateral damage has historically been Arizona agriculture. 

Ironically, because of our efficiencies, one can hardly notice now the impacts of past water supply reductions, but what of our future? What of the generations who will judge our actions by what we have left them?  What do we lose when we cash in all that ag water for other uses? We lose hundreds of farms and millions in economic activity for rural Arizona. We lose access to a local food supply and the supply chain security that it brings with it. We lose valuable soil nutrients and carbon sequestration opportunities, wildlife corridors, bird habitats, and green space. We lose our ability to choose what quality of life looks like for our family, and with it, the connection of our citizens to our land and water as the source of their basic nutritional needs. 

So maybe the question we should be asking isn’t how much water we can take from agriculture, but what we will lose when we do.   

Stefanie Smallhouse is a southern Arizona rancher, farmer, and president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. 


One comment

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