Shouldn’t Ag Water Conservation Be Used For Agriculture?

By Paul Brierley, Executive Director, Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture: Water is a hot topic in the desert southwest, and agriculture uses a lot of it. Are there ways for agriculture to save water? If so, what should it be used for, and how would agriculture and rural communities be impacted?

I was recently asked to be on a panel of water experts looking at alternatives to permanent fallowing of agricultural lands, or “buy and dry” as some call it. I want to share with you some of my thoughts on agricultural water conservation, and the impacts it could have on production agriculture.

People say agriculture should conserve water to meet the needs of urban and environmental water users. Conserving water is a great thing to do, but I take exception to the premise that the purpose of agriculture water conservation is to supply the needs of other water users. Why is that always the assumption?

The United Nations says the world needs to produce 70% more food by the year 2050. Given this, doesn’t it make sense that any agricultural water savings should be used by agriculture to produce even more food?

Fallowing, Irrigation Efficiency, Deficit Irrigation, and Switching to low-water-use crops are commonly suggested. These are all good ideas and definitely have their place. But they have real-world consequences that must be considered before assuming they are an easy answer to water shortages.

Desert agriculture is a model for irrigation efficiency, already producing much more food with less water than 30 years ago. Concrete lining of ditches, laser leveling of fields, high-flow turnouts, gated pipe, furrow irrigation, sprinklers and drip irrigation are all methods of conserving water. Each technique is appropriate in certain situations, and must be economically justifiable.

Is fallowing the solution? It sounds good on the surface:  Pay the farmer what he would have made and we’re good, right? Wrong! There is a huge infrastructure that goes along with Ag production. What about the employees that don’t get hired? The seed and chemical companies whose products are no longer needed? The retail sector that has fewer customers? The local government that collects less sales tax? And, what about the downstream user who no longer benefits from return flows or aquifer recharge? And the irrigation district that has fixed costs spread over a smaller customer base?

Then there’s this: fallowing doesn’t actually conserve water! It just transfers the water somewhere else for someone else to use. If that somewhere else is out of the basin, then there are no return flows or aquifer recharging, so the actual savings are less by about half.

And maybe the farmer doesn’t want to fallow his fields! How would you feel if someone said your profession is considered of secondary importance and we’ll pay you to stop doing it?

What if it is temporary fallowing? Well, if it’s voluntary that can make sense in case of short-term drought. But is it really temporary? If it is used to build homes and create jobs somewhere else, those uses will never be given up, and that water is gone from agriculture forever.

What about issues like dust and weeds during fallowing? And what about when the land returns to production -- will it need extra water applied to leach salts that accumulated during fallowing? This would minimize actual water savings.

How about switching to low-water use crops? Realize that the farmer is already planting what he thinks is going to bring the most profit. Crop selection is based on many factors, and low-water use crops may not return enough on investment to justify growing them, even with the water savings.

What about Deficit Irrigation, using less water than the crop needs? In most cases, less water equals lower production, which hurts the bottom line. Remember, the first rule of sustainable production is that the farmer has to be able to make a living or it’s not sustainable.

So, what do we do about Ag water? Well, we need to find new ways to squeeze every possible bit of production out of whatever water does go on the crops. At the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, we are figuring out ways to maximize production, getting “the most crop per drop!” Whether it’s saving water, avoiding plant disease, or applying technology, we are helping farmers to produce more food with fewer inputs. This is better for the farmer, better for the environment, and better for a hungry world!

Editor’s Note:  The University of Arizona’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture is a public-private partnership between the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and the Desert Agriculture production industry. Additionally, Ag lands fallowing Bill HB2366 is moving through Arizona's legilature as we write this. The bill has broad support from all industry stakeholders, including the Arizona Farm Bureau. If you have questions regarding the bill, contact Chelsea McGuire at chelseamcguire@azfb.org.

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