It is true that growing food is an important and often underappreciated business. Our human survival is dependent upon the successful growth of food. In Arizona the agricultural industry plays an even bigger role in our politics and policy due to our recent history. Cowboys and ranchers brought commerce and people to the state, paving the way for growth and development. We carry a romantic view of the yeoman farmer who helped build the state.
Despite the storied history and outsize impact of agriculture, this industry must be scrutinized. Currently, the Arizona GDP is about $300 billion and agriculture contributes less than 1% to that figure. Agriculture employs about 1% of Arizona workers while consuming 36% of our land and about 80% of our water. The thirsty and water intensive land uses that may have helped our state grow and flourish historically are now out of step with our disappearing water resources brought by drought, overuse, and climate change.
Should Arizona allow thirsty alfalfa and cotton to be grown at all? Multiple mega-dairies and farms have recently located to Arizona where they can grow alfalfa and raise dairy cows without much regulation or thought to their water use (Almarai, Riverview Dairy, and others). These farms have lowered groundwater tables and dried small neighboring wells, forcing people to relocate. The water they are using is not renewable and once gone will never be replaced in our human lifetimes.
Water use for municipal, industrial, and agricultural purposes has resulted in lowering the groundwater table, resulting in the drying of springs, creeks, and rivers, causing massive loss of riparian habitat all over the state. It is estimated that Arizona has lost 1.700 miles of free-flowing rivers since the arrival of European settlers to the state. Most of this loss was from damming rivers so that the water could be used for agricultural purposes and lawn watering.
The time has come to start asking the hard questions. Does an industry that adds 1% to the state GDP have the right to mine our groundwater, destroy our flowing rivers, and take water that can never be replaced? Can this industry be reformed or modernized to use less water? How do we better protect Arizona’s water resources so that flowing streams and rivers are not dried out by thirsty groundwater wells growing alfalfa for dairy cows? Should certain crops be discouraged or banned? Should groundwater pumping have a monetary cost? Why are we not more openly debating these hard but pressing questions?
Lynda Person is a steering committee member of the Sustainable Water Network.