Cascading Colorado River cuts bring focus to future of Arizona agriculture

Water canel next to agricultural fields.

A hydrological numbers crunch is playing out in the Southwest, with big implications for Arizona agriculture.

Rosa Bevington

As water levels at Lake Mead – the nation's largest reservoir – continue to drop to historic lows, a hydrological numbers crunch is playing out in the Southwest, with big implications for Arizona agriculture.

Severe and prolonged drought conditions have triggered a cascade of water-use reductions within the Colorado River Basin in recent years, including a "Tier 1" shortage that reduced Colorado River water available to central Arizona agricultural users by 65%.

In June, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met to examine potential short-term and long-term solutions to what the committee chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin, called the "western drought crisis."

"It doesn't matter where you live; drought has a domino effect that indirectly spills over into the lives of all Americans – from the economic losses to wildfires to food scarcities and higher food prices," Manchin said in his opening remarks.

At the hearing, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sounded yet another alarm: Water use along the Colorado River will need to be reduced by an additional 2 million to 4 million acre feet in 2023 to protect Lake Mead, at the Arizona-Nevada border, and Lake Powell, at the Arizona-Utah border, from crashing to minimum power pool or even dead pool levels, when water in a reservoir drops so low that it can’t flow downstream from the dam.

"Things are serious. The situation is moving a lot faster along the river than many anticipated," said Jeff Silvertooth, an agronomist with nearly 40 years of experience as a Cooperative Extension specialist in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Things are changing weekly. This is reality; this isn't a time for conjecture and theory. This is the time to make some decisions."

"We are experiencing impacts that people really didn't contemplate, even as recently as three years ago," said Sharon Megdal, director of UArizona Water Resources Research Center, or WRRC.

Amid the latest call for reductions, the future of agriculture in the desert Southwest has drawn national attention and will be the focus of the WRRC's 2022 annual conference – Arizona's Agricultural Outlook: Water, Climate, and Sustainability – which will begin July 12. 

The conference agenda reflects the diversity of Arizona agriculture, including large-scale irrigated operations, specialty agriculture, ranching, dairy farming, tribal farms and traditional practices. The program will also highlight innovations, partnerships, sustainable practices, the impacts of drought and climate change, and the conditions that shape agricultural activities.

Over the last 20 years, the conference has garnered a reputation for bringing diverse water interests to the table, with representatives from municipalities, utilities, industry and Native American communities.

"Everybody is a water stakeholder. We need an informed public supporting decisions that are wise and good decisions for Arizona," Megdal said. "They're going to involve tradeoffs. There are going to be burdens that have to be spread, but I would hope that people will walk away from the conference with a better understanding of the role of agriculture, the different faces of agriculture in Arizona and the understanding that agriculture has a historical role in this state, and it will continue to have a role."

Arizona agriculture is big business

Agricultural fields in Yuma, Arizona

Yuma County is the nation's dominant producer of winter leafy greens, such as romaine lettuce, spinach and kale.

Stevi Zozaya

Arizona agribusiness, including tribal agricultural, contributes $23.3 billion to the state's economy, according to a study completed by Ashley Kerna Bickel, Dari Duval and George Frisvold of the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The report illustrates the diversity of agricultural production in the state, where the vast majority of farms are family-run operations and partnerships.

Dairy and feed crop production are especially important in central Arizona, while agribusiness wholesaler importing and distribution is a significant economic driver in Santa Cruz County. Vegetable and melon farming and agricultural support services are the major industry driver in western Arizona, Frisvold said.

Yuma County, for example, is the nation's dominant producer of winter leafy greens, such as romaine lettuce, spinach and kale.

"When we talk about agricultural sustainability, farmers and ranchers must be able to make a living doing what they do. Generations of knowledge and hard-earned experience have taught them how to make the land as productive as they can, while being good stewards of our resources," said Paul Brierley, executive director of the university's Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture. "Each generation knows that if they don't take care of the land, it won't be productive for them – at least not for long.  And if they go out of business, all of that generational knowledge is lost."

Brierley, whose center works on a variety of issues – such as soilborne disease mitigation, irrigation and soil salinity – stresses the importance of scalable technologies and solutions to the water challenges facing the state.  

"There are literally hundreds if not thousands of ideas to make agriculture more sustainable, from drip irrigation and water treatment to soil amendments and low-water-use crops to drones and robotic weeders and harvesters," Brierley said. "But can we feed the world using them?"

That's a question many researchers are trying to tackle.

"It's incumbent for academia to come up with ideas and solutions that are feasible, as well as be ready to test, refine, evaluate and demonstrate them," Silvertooth said. "That's a lot of work to be done from the time you dream something up in your office to bringing it to the ground and getting it out in the field. But that is consistent with our role as a land-grant institution."

Floating big ideas

Silvertooth will give a keynote address at the WRRC conference, where advancing sustainable agriculture will be a significant theme.  Panel discussions will highlight how scientific research, technological advances, Indigenous ways of knowing and innovative partnerships can support tangible solutions for growers on the ground.

Agrivoltaics, which refers to the colocation of agriculture under solar photovoltaic panels, may provide a piece of the puzzle, with recent research led by the School of Geography's Gregg Barron-Gafford reporting positive impacts on food production, water savings and efficiency of electricity production. Vertical farming – the process in which crops are grown on top of each other in multitier systems in controlled indoor environments – presents another path forward.

Barron-Gafford will join Murat Kacira, director of the UArizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, to discuss ways these technologies may be deployed to optimize resource use and food production, alongside traditional field agriculture.

Channah Rock, a microbiologist and water quality expert who studies pathogens and organisms like E. coli, will speak to issues of water quality and public health alongside Peter Ellsworth, an entomologist who specializes in environmentally sensitive approaches to pest management.

Indigenous Resilience

Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a traditional Hopi farmer and assistant specialist with the School of Natural Resources & the Environment, teaches Hopi youth traditional corn growing techniques.

Michael Kotutwa Johnson

Kathy Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, will provide an overview of how climate change may affect water and drought adaptation. Jacobs will also moderate a panel featuring Cooperative Extension assistant agent Robert Masson, who will discuss a pilot program underway in Yuma with the Norwegian company Desert Control.

Tribal resilience and traditional ecological knowledge will be another important conference theme. Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a traditional Hopi farmer and assistant specialist with the UArizona  Indigenous Resilience Center, will join a panel focused on Arizona's agricultural diversity.   

The conference will also bring together perspectives from industry, government, water districts, farm alliances and international experts in water management and technological innovation.     

"The key message is that nobody is taking this lightly. This is the health of the agricultural sector, the environment, tribal communities, it's about all of us," Megdal said. "We're dealing with a very challenging situation. It's going to take understanding the issues, what the opportunities for addressing them are, what the tradeoffs may be, and knowing the costs."


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