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Agribusiness focuses on drought, not climate change

You will never hear the words “water crisis” said aloud in the in the chambers of the Arizona Legislature, Salt River Project, or Central Arizona Project. The fact the reservoirs on the Colorado River, which store irrigation water for our farms, have hit their lowest levels has not prompted our state’s Department of Agriculture, nor Farm Bureau to say the word “crisis” in public. 

Just five years ago, the Arizona Director of Agriculture Mark Killian put into print these words: “I would not agree that water rationing is imminent in Arizona. … Fifteen years of consecutive drought conditions affect us, but I’m still optimistic.” 

Whether the state’s greatest irrigation agriculture booster was justifiably optimistic or not, a profound reduction in Colorado River water usually allocated to irrigating Arizona’s crops IS now imminent. This Tier 1 shortage will result in a dramatic cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River – about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply. That means that about 18% of Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River supplies will be cut, amounting to 8% of Arizona’s total access to water. 

Gary Nabhan

Do Westerners believe we are in a water crisis? Try this: Simply Google the term water crisis and add the names of different Western states. You will find over 145 to 160 million postings of articles and media postings about the water crisis in California. There are roughly 75 to 80 million postings discussing water crises in New Mexico. 

Then Google “Arizona water crisis,” and you will see only about 40,000 postings. Our water brokers decided long ago that any acknowledgement of a water crisis is bad for business, stifling development and investment. 

Under Killian’s leadership, our state has become one of the most ill-equipped in the country at planning and implementing solutions for future water and food security.  

If we are to put food on our tables that comes from our own state, we will need an altogether different mix of leaders to get us there. Business as usual will not get Arizona where we need to be in terms of climate change resilience, a restorative economy, or an integrative health approach to land, water and people. 

But for far too long, Arizona’s agribusiness leaders have kept their heads in the sand on climate change and water scarcity issues. Arizona farmers and their lobbyists have focused narrowly on “drought” rather than “climate change adaptation.” In that way, they can rustle up drought relief payments after a bad year without having to concern themselves with long-term readiness or investments in more resilient, water-efficient technologies. Over the past six months, the drought was broken by good rains in much of the state, but the Colorado River still reached its record low because of watershed-wide dynamics. And a myopic focus on drought alone fails to recognize that farmers are also facing record temperatures, increased salinization in soils, and crumbling irrigation infrastructure — all linked to broader climate impacts. 

For such reasons, Arizona needs to shift its agriculture out of the “drought hand-out” mode, to build deeper climate change resilience in our entire food system. Here’s how to initiate that: 

  1. Change the name of his Governor’s Drought Interagency Coordinating Group to the Governor’s Climate Change Adaptation and Food System Resilience Work Group. Give it marching orders to grapple with heat waves, extended drought, salination, fires, floods and crumbling infrastructure driven by long-term climate uncertainty.
  2. Create funds to mandate participation in climate change workshops for all farmers using federal reclamation projects for irrigation. Teach them about climate readiness; heat-tolerant, high value crops; super-efficient micro-irrigation; soil salinity reduction; on-farm energy production; and carbon sequestration.
  3. Lobby the U.S.Senate and Housecommittees on Agriculture and Natural Resources to fully fund and staff a National Arid Land Plant Genetic Resource Unit of the Agriculture Research Service. 
  4. Develop an Arizona Center for Climate Stress-Related Health Care for all farmworkers, forestry workers and outdoor landscapers, who work in low-paid professions that have higher-than-average vulnerability to accidents and diseases related to heat and drought.
  5. Redirect federal funds earmarked for Arizona Indian communities for agriculture and natural resources directly to tribal governments, rather than passing them through the state Department of Agriculture. 

The Colorado River water shortages should not define Arizona agriculture as much as they should trigger changes toward a more resilient food system that we have needed all along. Let’s now jumpstart them in a bold manner. 

Gary Paul Nabhan is the W.K., Kellogg endowed chair for Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona.   


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