Recognized along with colleagues Ashley Kerna Bickel and Dari Duval for the Extension’s Economic Impact Assessment Team Award in the recent past, George Frisvold, Ph.D., leads what I personally call the “A-Team” in economic research. Their agricultural-based economic assessments on the local, state, and national levels have helped define and advance the true contributions of Arizona agriculture’s $23.3 billion industry (watch for a newly revealed number this fall since the most recent Census of Agriculture just came out). Dr. Frisvold and the team approach their economic research with the expected caution, calmness, and curiosity required of one mining for nuggets of understanding. Today, they have a new study to unveil. 

Joining the faculty UArizona in 1997, Dr. Frisvold previously was a visiting scholar at the National Institute of Rural Development in Hyderabad, India, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and Chief of the Resource and Environmental Policy Branch of USDA's Economic Research Service.

His research interests include domestic and international environmental policy, as well as the causes and consequences of technological change in agriculture. In 1995-96, Dr. Frisvold served as a Senior Economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisers with responsibility for agricultural, natural resource, and international trade issues.


He is currently the Bartley P. Cardon Chair of Agribusiness Economics and Policy and an associate editor for two journals: Pest Management Science and Water Economics and Policy. In 2020, Dr. Frisvold co-authored the National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine report, Safeguarding the Bioeconomy: Finding Strategies for Understanding, Evaluating, and Protecting the Bioeconomy while Sustaining Innovation and Growth


And so, with his research efforts on water use in the basin states recently completed, I decided to ask him in our conversation series just what “nuggets of understanding” we in agriculture can glean from the research and why we can be excited about the future. 



Arizona Agriculture: You and Dari Duval released a study at the end of last year called “Agricultural Water Footprints and Productivity in the Colorado River Basin.” Some exciting findings emerged. But before we dive into the high points, besides the obvious, what prompted the study?

Frisvold: There’s been a lot of interest by both consumers and the food industry in measuring the environmental footprints of products people buy. You hear about carbon footprints. Another is the water footprint – how much water is consumed in the production of different products. For example, you can go online and see an estimate of how much water is used to make a pizza. We were interested in how much water is used to grow crops across counties in the Colorado Basin. Because many different types of crops are grown, we used a common measure, dollars. We looked at how much water is consumed to produce $1,000 worth of crops in different counties. We thought this water footprint concept would also be useful for thinking about the implications of cutbacks in Colorado River water deliveries for regional crop production.


Arizona Agriculture: We know that the Colorado River is over-allocated among the upper and lower basin states. Can the study help address how to equitably adjust proposed cuts especially since unprecedented water-use cutbacks have been proposed and mostly toward agriculture? If so, what do those who analyze the study need to recognize?  

Frisvold: You can flip the water footprint over to ask, “For every acre-foot of water used, how many dollars’ worth of crop do you get?”  This tells you, if you take water away from agriculture, how much does society give up on the value of food production or farm income?  Agriculture in the Southwest is being called up to conserve a lot of water so that cities don’t have to. This comes at a cost. Beyond that, the costs will be higher if you take water away from some areas than others. Our study helps answer the question, where will these costs be higher and where will they be lower? 


Arizona Agriculture: Now to get to the good stuff, what did this peer-review study reveal? Another way to ask it is, what are the key points?   

Frisvold: There are big differences between counties in the Upper Colorado Basin (parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Northwest New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, Southwest New Mexico, Southern Nevada and Southern California). In the Lower Basin, farmers used an average of 1.2 acre-feet on average to produce $1,000 of crops. In the Upper Basin, farmers used more than 7.6 acre-feet. Within the Lower Basin, the water footprint is even lower in the Southwestern half of Arizona. We also looked at gross farm income net of crop-specific costs. Four counties, Imperial and Riverside in California and Yuma and Maricopa in Arizona, accounted for 75% of regional net crop revenues while consuming less than half of the Basin’s irrigation water. If you also include Pinal, La Paz, Graham, and Cochise counties in Arizona, these eight counties accounted for 90% of crop net returns and two-thirds of irrigation water consumed. This means all the remaining Basin counties consumed one-third of the region’s irrigation water – which is a lot of water -- but generated just 10% of Basin net crop revenues.


Arizona Agriculture: So, you are saying the Arizona counties have among the lowest water footprints in the entire basin. Please expand on this. Is our use of advanced irrigation technology part of the reason why?

Frisvold: Two big reasons are climate and labor availability. Our warm, dry climate leads to higher yields, a longer growing season, and multi-cropping. This climate also allows growers to produce high-value winter vegetable crops in North America when no one else can. However high-value vegetable crops are labor-intensive, so access to labor from Mexico is critical.  


Arizona Agriculture: Also expand on the point that while some fixate on high water use per acre of Arizona agriculture, Arizona agriculture has low water use per dollar.

Frisvold: We found that counties that used more water per acre used less water per dollar and vice versa. Production systems in warm, dry areas have higher water requirements, but they are also really efficient. The other side of the coin is that production systems with low water requirements don’t produce much for the amount of water they do use. People fixate on water use per acre because it is relatively easy to measure. However, it isn’t that useful for evaluating water use or developing water conservation policies. There are good economic reasons why farmers are growing the crops they are growing in Arizona. Our results suggest there can be steeper economic costs to changing this in Arizona compared to other parts of the Basin. 


Arizona Agriculture: What was most surprising to you about the study?

Frisvold: I had a sense that water productivity was higher in the Lower Basin than the Upper Basin. What surprised me was just how much higher it is – more than 6 times higher. When we’ve shown the result that counties that use less water per acre use more water per dollar, the universal reaction has been, “Wait, what??” It makes sense if you think about it a bit, but people find it counterintuitive.  


Arizona Agriculture: What did it confirm for you that until the data was compiled and analyzed, you could not highlight or prove?

Frisvold: You hear in the media and elsewhere the question, why do they grow crops in the desert?   The results highlight that desert agriculture uses water very efficiently. In dollar terms, you get a lot more “crop per drop.”  People like to consume fresh vegetables all year round and are willing to pay for that. That accounts for high values per acre-foot. A lot of crop production has very high returns, more than $1,000 per acre-foot, but there are also about 3 million acre-feet used (mostly in the Upper Basin) that generate less than $250 in gross returns per acre-foot.


Arizona Agriculture: What is the biggest thing you hope our agriculturalists take away from this study and certainly our policymakers?

Frisvold: For policymakers, I hope our results counter the fixation on water use per acre and shift thought more to the value of production per acre foot or how much value is lost when you cut water from highly productive areas. Payment rates for voluntary agricultural water conservation under the Inflation Reduction Act are much higher for the Lower Basin than the Upper Basin. Our analysis suggests this makes good economic sense. Arizona growers believe they are pretty efficient at using water. This study puts more solid, independent numbers behind that belief. 


Arizona Agriculture: In the study’s conclusion, two further areas of research are proposed. Explain to our readers why additional research is needed.

Frisvold: We found that the Lower Basin has a much lower water footprint than the Upper Basin. We’ve started new research to answer why that is so.  So far, we’ve found that having warmer winter temperatures and being on the US-Mexico border explains about two-thirds in the differences between counties. Right now, we’re using closeness to the border as an indirect measure of labor availability. People may not see an obvious connection between labor availability and water, but labor allows us to get a lot of value from the water we use. The water consumption data we used to construct water footprints are only available every five years and with lags. We are exploring alternative measures that capture the same thing but are available regularly and without long lags. People need to know about the value of irrigation water now, not five or more years ago. 


Looking at cash rent data, which is available yearly and released promptly by USDA, looks promising. We are exploring how cash rent data might help inform voluntary water conservation payment programs. 

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Arizona Agriculture