U.S. Water News Online
PHOENIX -- A nearly decade-long drought is changing the way
Frank Martin does business at his Crooked Sky Farms in Glendale.
Martin still grows organic lettuce, beets, bok choi, cabbage and
cauliflower on his 26-acre farm.
But growing water-intensive crops &endash; like sweet corn
&endash; is a thing of the past, as is farming much in the summer or
watering when rain is imminent.
The Western drought is making farmers think twice about their
They are avoiding water-intensive crops, scaling back their plots,
watering only at dusk and dawn, implementing conservation measures
and installing water-saving devices.
"We really play the hand that we are dealt," said Will Rosseau, a
fourth-generation farmer. "We are always trying to shave production
costs, make ourselves more efficient in terms of water."
The drought has been wreaking havoc on Western states from the
Mexico border to Canada for nearly a decade, but with Arizona facing
its worst drought in recorded history, the past two years have been
especially difficult for farmers here.
For the second consecutive year, farmers who receive water from
the Salt River Project, which delivers surface water from the Salt
and Verde rivers, have had their allocations cut by one-third.
"Now all of the sudden everybody is worried," said Martin, 48.
SRP, one of the Phoenix area's largest water suppliers, cut
deliveries to all of its customers in January 2003 after levels in
storage reservoirs fell, said SRP hydrologist Bruce Halon.
The utility's municipal customers absorbed the cutback by
increasing their use of water from wells and a canal system that
delivers Colorado River water to central Arizona.
But many farmers couldn't do that.
"It is pretty unfair that farmers have cut back 30 percent of
water and have done conservation efforts when people in the cities
have hardly cut back water use by 5 percent," said Gary Nabhan, of
the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona
Irrigation use declined nationwide from 150 billion gallons per
day to 137 billion gallons per day from 1980 to 2000, according to
the U.S. Geological Survey.
During that same period, water use from public water systems
nationwide increased, due to population growth, from 34 billion
gallons to 43 billion gallons a day.
Even though irrigation use has been declining and public water use
has been increasing, irrigation still sucks up seven times more water
than public supply in the West, said Susan Hutson, a hydrologist with
the U.S. Geological Survey.
It's still not enough, according to many farmers.
Nabhan said the cutbacks are increasing production costs,
diminishing yields and increasing debt for the farmers.
"Water is your lifeline in the agriculture business," said
Glendale farmer Bill Tolmachoff.
Some growers have found ways to cope.
Nabhan grows desert-adapted crops, such as tepary beans, which he
said historically were the most widely grown bean in Arizona. He also
grows sunflowers and blue corn.
Others are just quitting.
"They are just throwing in the towel and selling out to
developers," Nabhan said.
An average of 100 farms in Arizona have been going under every
year since the drought began, Nabhan said.
"More ranchers and farmers in Arizona are going under than ever
before," Nabhan said.
Competition from overseas isn't helping.
The water restrictions have increased the farmers' production
costs by forcing them to get water from more expensive sources, which
consumers see on the price tags for farm goods. Consequently more
produce is being purchased from other countries, Nabhan said.
"Everybody is really just holding their breath," said Dee Logan,
an Arizona Community Farmers' Markets coordinator.
The same thing is evident in states across the region. In parts of
Idaho, the only farmers who are expected to get water this summer
might be the ones with water rights dating to the 1800s. In New
Mexico, farmers are expected to face dramatic reductions.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service is forecasting the
potential for water restrictions and widespread crop and pasture
losses in parts of Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.
When the drought ends things may take years to return to normal,
if they ever do.
The food-producing capacity does not immediately rebound once
rainfall returns to normal, Nabhan said. Instead, productivity is
damaged to the point that pre-drought rates may never be achieved
"We're seeing that the effects aren't going to go away when the
drought is done," Nabhan said. "This is a long-term threat to our
food security that may last 50 years or more."
As for Martin, he said water will continue to occupy his every
thought as the drought continues to ravage his land.
"There is no real sign that this is letting up," he said. "It
doesn't look good."
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