What incentivizes an Arizona Farmer to Save Water?

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: Recently, a student journalist asked, “What incentivizes an Arizona farmers to save water?”

Did I hear the question correctly? In fact, her comment was one of the easiest and most honestly refreshing questions I’ve had for some time.

Our pristine and precious resouce, water, often commands a high price for its use. As a result, farmers cannot afford to waste it.

The answer is cost, of course.

Compared to a state like Louisiana, water in a desert state is certainly scarce and the cost of it in certain areas of Arizona is high (like all rare and precious finds, the price is premium). If I’m a farmer in Central Arizona drawing my water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), I might pay as much as $74 an acre-foot (2015 rates; varies from water district to water district). Imagine that I need to water a 600-acre alfalfa field, and I must water more than once a year. Alfalfa will use 5 to 7 acre-feet per acre each year depending on application efficiency and weather patterns.

As a result, Murphree Farms (where I partnered with my parents and brothers) was motivated by the cost to improve our water use. Additionally, we envisioned a more environmentally sustainable future by conserving our precious water resource. If future generations wanted to farm, we were going to make a way. And, we did by implementing a variety of modern technology methods for reducing water use. One was laser leveling all our land so it would be flat to then conduct what is known as basin irrigation, a method of watering fields. In this way, we reduced as much as 2- to 3-acre-feet per acre in water use (some farmers have been able to achieve even higher rates of water reduction using this irrigation method).  

The public loves the idea of more farmers using drip irrigation, another method of reducing water use in crop farming since drip can have the most dramatic water-reduction results. However, it’s also very expensive. My farmers I talk to will have to spend anywhere from $2,000 to $2,500-an-acre to put a system in. So, while you would think every farmer in the valley would institute a drip system, cost to implement prevents it.

Also, if I’m farming on leased land, I would never invest in it based on the risk of losing the leased ground I’m currently farming. Several of our farmers lease from the tribes; you won’t find drip on those leases unless the tribe decides to make that business investment on their own land. 

“The benefits to basin irrigate or flood irrigate means farmers help provide a habitat for a substantial number of bird species that is not present with drip,” explained Arizona and California cotton farmer Ron Rayner.

Often, an uninformed public – and certainly uninformed politicians – think they must take our farmers and ranchers by the hand and lead them to wise business choices. What they don’t realize is because of the complex nature of managing a sophisticated agriculture business that most of these future-focused business farmer professionals have already plotted out strategies for conservation of precious resources, food safety, nutrition and solid profitability.  Ultimately, they’ve already figured out what will work.

The most sophisticated, sincere, and razor-sharp business professionals are our successful farmers and ranchers. I know, I talk to them daily.

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