Taking Control of the Water Narrative One Offensive Move at a Time
The Carlink Ranch sits in a little river valley in Southeastern Arizona, where we farm along the valley floor and raise cattle up in the hills of the Galiuro and Catalina Mountain ranges. The expense of growing forage crops for your own cattle is hard to pencil out much of the time and that is likely why there are not too many ranches around Arizona that include a farming operation like ours. Even though our place has included farming acreage since Andy’s family started in the valley 140 years ago, the acreage has expanded over the last 50 years to offset the comings and goings of drought conditions and enhance our rest and rotation grazing system.
It was all through my husband Andy’s childhood that his father would spend thousands of hours on an old cable-controlled D7 Caterpillar clearing acres and acres of overgrown and invasive mesquite thickets from the valley floor for those farms. Andy will tell you that it was probably breathing in all that diesel fuel over the years that did his dad in at an early age. It was grueling work for sure. Seeing your dad do that kind of work from sunup to sundown has a lasting impact on a kid and those farms have proven to be invaluable and likely contributed to the ranch’s longevity.
Over 40 years ago, the State of Arizona began the adjudication process for the San Pedro River and in 1991 a hydrographic survey report was completed for the entire watershed. To put it simply, the adjudication is basically a process to determine who has what rights to the surface flow within the system. We are entering the 5th decade of this process. Then in 2014, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (DWR) completed the sub-flow technical report for the river system. When this happened, we suddenly found ourselves not only in a fight for our surface water rights but were informed that most of our farm wells were likely pumping sub-flow and not groundwater. This change means that the irrigation of a significant portion of our farmland is at risk, which has forced us to make some very difficult decisions over the last few years.
So, we sit at our kitchen table and look over maps. We are trying to prioritize which farms to keep and which to let go – if that is ultimately what we are forced to do. Remember, each one of those farms represents hundreds of hours of Andy’s father’s efforts and if they are not farmed, they will effortlessly disappear back into the messy abyss of mesquite – as if they never existed. One man’s life work for the benefit of his family’s future – gone. For us, and especially Andy, that might be the hardest part of this whole grueling process called adjudication.
The adjudication is just one battle in this war of attrition over water being fought against Arizona agriculture. We are entering a new era of water management in the State of Arizona – for both groundwater in rural Arizona and surface water along the Colorado River. The question we are faced with is, do we continue on defense and fight each wave as it comes at us, or do we pivot to offense and work towards long-term solutions? Arizona Farm Bureau exists to lead on this issue. But what does that mean? Sometimes leading means first to move on defense, and sometimes it means the courage to go on the offense and create solutions.
For one, agriculture is the driving force in many rural Arizona communities and irrigated agriculture is a necessity. Even though we may not blanket the landscape, like what you would see in Central Iowa, our farming is diverse, precise, and highly productive. As Dean Burgess has described us, we are the Nutrition State. If you could only eat what is locally grown within your state – you would want to be in Arizona. To 90% of the public, access to local food is extremely important. Globally, 40% of the world’s food production comes from irrigated agriculture, and nationally, 70% of land used to grow vegetables is irrigated. That number is 80% for orchard crops. All the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. come from only 3% of the country’s crop acreage but account for 1/3 of all U.S. crop value, and in Arizona, we happen to be in the top five states for production of raw vegetables to market. Although many in the policy world like to claim, that “alfalfa should not be grown in the desert,” we dwarf other states in our production of crop per drop of alfalfa, with 8 tons per acre versus the national average of around 3 tons per acre. I could go on and on about our cotton, our livestock, our wine growers, our dairymen – but you get the idea. Irrigated agriculture is essential for food production around the world, irrigated agriculture is essential for Arizona agriculture, and Arizona agriculture is important to Arizonans and our country. We must lead on this issue.
Secondly, we have prepared for this time, and we are the stewards of these watersheds. For the last several years we have collected the perspectives of our members and formulated policy. We have also sought out the perspective of others within and outside of our industry and now is the time to coordinate all this information and create a plan of action to move us forward into the future where agriculture thrives and builds on new opportunities with certainty. We know from years of engagement with our members that in specific areas where groundwater is declining, and use is increasing – you are worried. Although agriculture is certainly not at fault for this decline, after all, we have been in a record-breaking drought for over 20 years, and we cannot ignore the issue. Our members want to have some sense of control over this issue. You want to be proactive but also secure in your ability to continue farming into the future. In other areas of the state, where water levels are static and access is not a challenge, you want to be left alone. And along the Colorado River, where priority is precedent, you want to have a meaningful seat at the table to hold the line.
As for the resource itself – the water – conservation is ongoing. The conservation conversation is not a new one in our daily lives. As Dr. Frisvold with the University of Arizona has compiled from USDA data, in 2013 alone, Arizona growers of all crops spent $53.3 million on new irrigation-related equipment, facilities, land improvements, and computer technology. These investments in irrigation improvements averaged $151 per acre and $42,000 per farm. Of the $53.3 million – $12.2 million were investments primarily to conserve water, while another $1.1 million was to conserve energy. Over the last 30 years, while urban and industrial withdrawals in Arizona have risen by 68%, ag water withdrawals have fallen by 35%. For most of the state, conservation has always been a choice – not a mandate. We have chosen to conserve. We must lead on this issue.
And lastly, now is the time to lead, act, and take control of the narrative. For the last several years, we have been on defense. We have fought off multiple regulatory frameworks in the legislature, and we have battled against INA petitions and AMA elections. We have countered multiple op-eds and defended our use in multiple arenas. In the last 25 years, I have sat in every type of water courtroom, from the court of public opinion in county planning meetings to the hearings of the Navigability Commission. I’ve sat at the expansive round tables of the Drought Contingency Plan, the Arizona Re-Consultation Committee, and most recently Governor Hobb’s Water Policy Council. I’ve even sat in the hearing room of the Special Water Master to hear the defense of my own family’s water use. At some point, they all feel like courtrooms because I always find myself in a position defending our use of water. I sit in rooms full of people who claim we are wasteful, greedy, and indifferent to the needs of Arizonans - making a case for our record of conservation and why using water for agriculture is the highest and best use. Think about that for a moment. As my good friend and water attorney David Brown describes it, “It’s a meat grinder.” And as in every battle of attrition, it’s about which side wears down first. Who runs out of resources first? Who will tire and give up?
So here we are today, once again facing a choice. We have stepped away from the Governor’s Council, a council where we were not being heard. Our seat at that table was clearly to provide a checkmark – a rubber stamp for a proposal we have rejected multiple times because it does not work for agriculture in rural Arizona. I think most of you know by now – I am not a rubber stamp. Arizona Farm Bureau is not a rubber stamp. We are a collection of voices, and now is the time for those voices to set the narrative!
What do I mean when I say now is the time to take control of the narrative? Although we are in the minority as individual votes – we will experience the greatest impact from any new water regulations. We are the keepers of the watersheds; We have the attention of policymakers and the public; We have allies and champions in key, albeit tenuous, positions in the Statehouse; We see the landscape clearly and have solutions to offer.
What are we doing if we are not taking action in the best interest of the future generations on our farms and ranches? We can kill another proposal; we can kick the can down the road – who are we kicking the can to? What will be the circumstances they must tackle?
It is much easier to tear something down than to build something up. It is time for the Arizona Farm Bureau to pivot to offense and we are going to create a path forward. That is going to be hard. We are working with our champions in the legislature, we are seeking and taking perspective, and are developing solutions for our members that reflect who we are: We are independent but collaborative; We are diverse but share the same goals; We steward the soil and the water resources of entire landscapes, but we are also first and fifth generation family farms and ranches who persist and need security for our own futures; We are first in time, in many respects, but we are also fair of mind. There will be those who try to tear down what we create. That is the way of these things and I expect that to come from every direction. My hope is that as a member-driven organization, we can all unite behind our policy and drive this effort forward with the confidence of knowing that this is our time to lead.
Agriculture is essential to Arizona's prosperity and Arizona Farm Bureau is the Voice of Agriculture.
Editor’s Note: This editorial was originally a speech given by President Smallhouse in November during the 102nd Arizona Farm Bureau Annual Meeting in Tempe.