When most western farmers look in a crystal ball, they see themselves using less water. The real questions are how much less and how will farmers get there?
Farmers are not being paranoid in thinking that cities are after their water. The cities do want some agricultural water, but they don’t need that much.
Extrapolating from reliable estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, a single-digit reduction in agricultural consumption of 4 percent translates into almost a 50 percent increase in the water available for consumption by municipal and industrial users.
Put that way, a modest reallocation of water from farms to cities need not jeopardize rural communities’ vibrant futures. It all depends on how the transfers occur.
If a reduction in agricultural water consumption were achieved by improvements in irrigation efficiencies, farmers could end up growing the same amount of product, but with a little less water. And the cities could use the water farmers conserved.
Many farmers have installed highly efficient irrigation systems and others haven’t, mostly because it’s expensive. But suppose cities were to pay to modernize farm infrastructure in return for getting the water saved? It’s a win-win option.
What might cause farmers to use less water? A reduction could be required by state or federal legislation. As the political power of cities increases and that of farmers ebbs, farmers might be unable to prevent new legislation from restricting their water use.
A second option would be reductions brought about by court decisions and decrees. A court could reduce a farmer’s water rights by holding traditional irrigation practices unacceptable.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta offers an example of what can happen to water rights challenged as violating environmental laws.
A third option would be administrative rules and regulations. In 2003, the Bureau of Reclamation determined that the Imperial Irrigation District (IDD) was wasting water. With the swipe of a bureaucratic pen, IID lost 300,000 acre-feet of water rights.
The uncertainty associated with government rules and regulations should strike fear into the hearts of farmers.
Farmers could control their destiny
Modest reallocations through leases and sales offer rural communities an opportunity to control their own destiny. Consider three mechanisms, starting with dry-year leases between row crop producers and almond growers or cities.
As almond producers struggle to find water to keep their orchards alive, dry-year leases have mitigated risk to both sides. In particular, the row crop producer benefits by monetizing a portion of his revenue stream and by reducing the risks of commodity price swings, pests, and disease.
Second, suppose the cities pay farmers to install subsurface drip irrigation? It’s expensive, about $3,000 per acre, but it’s very efficient – and has numerous other benefits. Sometimes, its efficiency means more product is grown with the same amount of water; hence, no water is saved in an absolute sense.
But recent studies have found that temporary idling of fields improves yield a year or two later. A farmer might very willingly idle parcels on a rotating basis, in exchange for better yields, higher quality, and incredible uniformity – all paid for by willing cities.
Finally, it’s time to stop irrigating alfalfa in the desert during the dog days of summer. Summer cuttings use four times the water as those during the rest of the year; yet produce crops with lower quality and lower quantity.
Summertime alfalfa represents the most inefficient use of water in the Southwest, rather than the much-maligned but high-value almond.
Recent studies have shown that alfalfa stands don’t die in many parts of the Southwest with a temporary suspension of irrigation. Farmers often grow alfalfa under these extreme conditions because irrigation district rules don’t permit them to benefit financially from using less water.
Alfalfa farmers face a choice between two poor outcomes: use a lot of water to keep alfalfa growing, or save water and get no income. Farmers need a third option - don’t use as much water and profit from leasing or selling the conserved water.
This is a tough time to be a farmer or engaged in the business of putting food on people’s tables. Yet farmers can act to secure a robust future for rural communities as they help alleviate the western water crisis.
(Editor’s note: Dr. Robert Glennon is a Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona and the author of the book - Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.)