How one Yuma farmer sees Arizona’s water future

How one Yuma farmer sees Arizona’s water future

farmers, Colorado River, Yuma, drought, cauliflower
A group of agriculture workers package heads of cauliflower on a farm in Yuma, the nation’s primary producer of leafy greens and other vegetables in the winter months. The agricultural industry in Arizona is reliant on water flowing from the Colorado River. And as the Biden administration and federal agencies rush to remedy a looming water crisis in the Southwest, farmers in the state are concerned that directives from authorities could have an outsized impact on an integral part of the economy. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Farm Bureau)

The agricultural industry in Arizona is reliant on water flowing from the Colorado River. And as the Biden administration and federal agencies rush to remedy a looming water crisis in the Southwest, farmers in the state are concerned that directives from authorities could have an outsized effect on an integral part of the economy.

Earlier this year, six of the seven states reliant on the Colorado River – including Arizona – agreed to drastic water cuts of about 25% of total usage annually.

Interstate conflicts dating back to the 1920s have resurfaced as upper-basin states like Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico argue that lower-basin states like Arizona and California should be the ones to bear the brunt of water cuts. Upper-basin states claim that lower-basin states tend to use more water – through evaporation and distribution – as they must transport it via canals.

farmers, water, drought, Biden administration, Yuma, Colorado River
John Boelts

However, an extremely wet winter in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges is offering a moment of reprieve for water authorities and experts scrambling to find an equitable solution to the Southwest’s drought. Not that the snowmelt will reverse recent Arizona water cuts, but it may delay further action to reduce water usage.

In Arizona, the agricultural industry, informally known as the “Ag” industry, is responsible for about 74% of total water usage, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR). Therefore, the water usage scale-back has affected farmers in the state more than the residential development industry or existing municipalities.

Groups representing farmers and agricultural workers in the state are emphasizing consideration for the importance of their industry in their policy prescriptions. One such group is the Arizona Farm Bureau (AZFB), which notes in its 2023 priority issues statement that “agricultural water use must be protected to maintain secure levels of food production. Solutions that lead to food insecurity are not solutions at all.”

John Boelts, AZFB first vice president and owner and operator of Desert Premium Farms in Yuma, argues that the ag industry often gets the “short end of the stick” in times of proposed water cuts amid cyclical droughts.

The Arizona Capitol Times spoke with Boelts about the importance of Yuma’s ag industry in the nation’s vegetable supply, how farmers feel about the future of water cuts and how perceptions of certain industries and water can affect policy.

How is the region of Yuma and Yuma County able to produce a vast majority of the nation’s winter vegetable supply?

“Well, it boils down to weather like so many things in farming. It’s just right place, right weather and right conditions. The climate that we have here and the weather that we have here is probably the biggest thing and the biggest reason why we are growing fresh vegetables and seed crops. We just have very unique and special weather here in Yuma that’s different than most other places in the United States and in the world, for that matter. We’ve got some interesting things going on here, and agriculture is robust and, in many ways, irreplaceable.”

In the last 18 months, the Biden administration and other federal agencies have put pressure on Southwestern states to scale back on Colorado River water usage. How could some of the proposed Colorado River cuts and interstate agreements to reduce reliance on the Colorado River affect the agriculture industry more generally? 

“We have a ways to go before a lot of that is really well lined out, if you will. We are kind of watching and waiting and paying attention to every time the Bureau (of Reclamation) or the Department of Interior speaks on the matter. I had a professor from the University of Arizona talk to me one time about this topic. We were talking about water a lot because he was covering that topic, and I described it to him this way:

“For him, he speaks to his students in his classroom, and so the air in his classroom carries soundwave vibrations and is essential to him being able to breathe and stay alive. That is how essential water is for agriculture in the desert.

“Agriculture definitely doesn’t exist on any level if there’s not adequate water. Here in Yuma, we’re growing fresh vegetables for the U.S. and Canadian market. So, any (water) cuts to the region are gonna have a huge impact. Big cuts to our area are gonna have devastating economic impacts. In Yuma, ag is bigger than every other industry combined.”

How does the perception that agricultural growth uses much more water than other types of growth, such as residential, commercial and industrial growth, affect how water is allotted in the state?

“It’s an interesting take, because when we’re growing crops on cropland, the crops we grow are used by people. They’re basic necessities that people need, from vegetables and fruits that they eat to the cotton that we grow that people wear in their clothing. Whether you’re growing alfalfa that then cows turn into milk or grass that then cows turn into milk, which turns into ice cream and milk products and butter and whatnot, we’re not growing anything that people don’t need to eat. Regardless of how many houses you (build) … those people are still going to need to eat food, and that food will still have to be produced somewhere.

“Agriculture in Arizona made a lot of sacrifices in the 1980 Groundwater (Management) Act and was really coerced into a lot of things…but we thought ‘OK,’ that’s the law of the land and we’re gonna deal with (Active Management Areas) and we’re gonna deal with the Groundwater Act.

“The gut punch is to watch, over the last 30 to 40 years, as governors of various parties did not enforce the letter of the law, which said you have to have a 100-year assured water supply to plant houses in Arizona. That hasn’t been followed at all.

“You drive across Arizona, and I agree there’s some beautiful areas north of Tucson, there’s some beautiful areas around the Phoenix area and Scottsdale. They’re absolutely beautiful. It’d be cool to build a house in some of those areas, but there’s no water in those areas, and there’s no way that they could actually qualify for a 100-year assured water supply.

“To me, we’ve shot ourselves in the leg. We have growth, and that’s OK, but that growth has to be growth that makes sense in a desert and has to be done right in a desert area.”