Arizona agriculture creates framework to protect water supply

Arizona agriculture creates framework to protect water supply

Arizona Agriculture Water Summit - farm, ranch leaders huddle to identify water use and issues across the state - lay groundwork to help the industry maintain its current water supply for farming and ranching in the future. New survey results - The public believes agriculture should not face cutbacks during water shortages; and voters oppose water transfers from farms and ranches to urban areas.

About 60 leaders from Arizona’s diverse farming industry huddled in September for the Arizona Agriculture Water Summit. 

The goal was to identify agricultural water issues across the Grand Canyon State and how the food and fiber industries should work together to protect its vital and threatened water supply.

Farmers, ranchers, and leaders representing various agricultural organizations in Arizona divided into groups to learn about water issues across commodity areas and regions in the state.

When the two-day meeting concluded, the group had developed an early framework to help agriculture move forward to help secure its future water needs and help serve as an anchor for water to support Arizona’s $17.2 billion agricultural industry.

During breakout sessions, attendees broke into three sub groups - green, yellow, and red – where they discussed water problems and potential solutions. The discussions allowed growers from all walks of agriculture to better understand water issues in other segments of agriculture.

At the end of the breakouts, each group developed its top list of ideas, needs, and values on water.

“We are not leaving this water summit with a mandate on water solutions,” said AnnaMarie Knorr, a conference leader and the manager of Arizona government affairs for Western Growers.

“We all belong to different organizations and many of these issues should (first) be vetted through those entities,” Knorr said.

Other active summit participants included irrigation district managers and chemical company reps, plus state lawmakers.

1,075 feet

Across Arizona, water is likely the top burner issue facing Arizona agriculture, as farming and ranching communities deal with reduced water supplies tied to the 15th consecutive year of drought in the state.

In addition, agriculture’s eyes are sharply focused on the water mark level at Lake Mead in northeastern Arizona. When (not if) the water level drops below 1,075 feet deep at the lake, the U.S. government will likely authorize a shortage call on the Colorado River which would trigger reductions in surface water deliveries from the mighty Colorado.

When this occurs – likely in the next several years, the State of Arizona would face the largest surface water cutbacks among the lower basin states. 100 percent of the cuts would be in water deliveries from the Central Arizona Project to central Arizona agriculture.

California’s water allotment from the Colorado River would not be cut in a stage-one shortage.

Group reports

Back to the summit, a summary of the green group’s discussion included: changes should be implemented to remove Arizona agriculture as the first industry to face surface water cuts; urban areas should develop their own ‘new water’ to support urban growth; and overgrown forests on federal lands in Arizona should be thinned to reduce wildfires and provide water supplies elsewhere.

The yellow group supported maintaining Arizona agriculture’s current water supply; implementing groundwater flexibility for farmers; incentivizing drip and sprinkler systems to further conserve water; creating new water storage (dams); salt cedar tree removal; and the use of cloud seeding.

Oppose water transfers

The yellow group took a hardline stance in opposition to water rights transfers from basin to basin. It is currently against the law to transfer water rights in Arizona. They said desalinization plants are one way to generate new water. Desal companies will enter come on the market when it makes financial sense.

The last group – blue – supported water augmentation through new storage facilities and echoed the benefits of forest thinning. They stressed the need for more rural legislators, to not only support agriculture in the Arizona Legislature but also share agriculture’s viewpoints with non-farm lawmakers.

The blue group asked for the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) to support agriculture’s water needs.

At the summit was ADA Director Mark Killian who chimed in saying, “The Department would be willing to facilitate a water group and take the ideas from the summit and help shepherd them to the right people.”

The Director added, “People need to understand what would happen if agriculture went away.”

New public message for ag

The blue group also stated that agriculture should address the water fight head on and create agricultural water messages for the public, plus draw on the awareness of the drought in California to promote water policies good for Arizona agriculture.

As the summit drew to a close, several attendees spoke out on related water and regulatory issues.

ESA changes?

Ron Rayner, who farms row crops in Goodyear, Ariz. plus grapes and citrus in Exeter, Calif., discussed the overbearing reach of the Environmental Protection Act (ESA) and how law interpretations have deferred water away from California agriculture, and to a lesser extent in Arizona.

“The Endangered Species Act is the principal problem with the lack of water in California,” Rayner said. “Out of the 12-13 million acre feet (MAF) of water that makes its way down the Sacramento Delta more than 8.3 MAF of the water has gone to the ocean in the last year and half of it during a critical water period.”

Rancher Andy Groseta of Cottonwood, Ariz., encouraged agriculture to move quickly on the water issue.

Groseta said, “We need people to understand that agriculture does a good job with water in Arizona. Water is not only good for agriculture but agriculture is good for everyone in this state. I think that’s how we should sell it.”

As Arizona agriculture accelerates efforts to keep water for agricultural use, selling this message will undoubtedly face multiple hurdles. The good news offered by Bas Aja was the public has a positive view of Arizona agriculture and its water management.

Voters support ag's water use

Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders’ Association and the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, shared with the group the results of a Summer 2015 telephone survey of 600 likely voters on the public’s attitudes about Arizona agriculture and water.

Among the findings included:

  • Arizona voters are friendly towards the state’s farmers and ranchers;
  • Voters approve of agriculture’s water management efforts;
  • The public believes agriculture should not face cutbacks during water shortages;
  • Water cutbacks for private lawns, golf courses, and other outdoor uses should occur before water is reduced to agriculture;
  • Voters oppose water transfers from farms and ranches to urban areas; and
  • If water were transferred from rural areas to urban areas, voters overwhelmingly agree that urban areas should compensate rural areas for the loss of water and economic opportunity.

Rick Lavis, executive director of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, reminded the crowd that changing laws related to water requires the public and legislative processes.

“We need to remember this process as we move forward,” Lavis said.

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