U.S. Water News Online
PHOENIX -- Jim Henness leveled his fields and fixed all his
irrigation ditches back in the 1970s, turning his Pinal County farm
into a model of efficient water use, even if he was growing acre
after acre of thirsty cotton plants.
The thanks he got?
A set of water-conservation rules that, as near as he could
figure, penalized him for using so little water and rewarded farmers
who'd been taking much more.
That's why Henness is so willing to talk up a pilot program
started by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, one that gives
conservation-minded farmers more flexibility in what they grow, how
they grow it and how much water they use.
To participate, a farmer proposes a best management program,
choosing from a lengthy list of practices designed to use water more
efficiently. It could be something as simple as lining ditches with
concrete, using lasers to level fields, which eliminates wasteful
runoff during irrigation, or using computerized weather data to
better schedule water turns.
The plan could include more involved improvements as well, such as
installing underground drip irrigation systems, which target the
water on a plant's roots, monitoring soil moisture or planting
established seedlings instead of thirstier seeds.
State officials must approve the overall plan before allowing a
farm to join the program. Not everyone will qualify, and Henness and
others say that's a good thing.
"It should be a high bar," Henness said. "I can't imagine from a
cost standpoint why anyone would be wasting water."
The program is likely to gain the strongest hold in Pinal County,
where farmers have fewer water sources, but operators in Buckeye and
Queen Creek have signed up as well.
If it works, the program could help some farmers begin growing
crops on land they'd idled to comply with the old rules. It will help
some survive water cutbacks imposed because of the drought and could
prove even more valuable when their rights to water from the Central
Arizona Project begin to expire.
There are no estimates of how much water the program could save,
if it saves any at all. Farmers account for 68 percent of the state's
annual water consumption &emdash; 80 percent in Pinal county &emdash;
so a pilot program isn't likely to put much of a dent in the overall
And critics of desert farming have suggested the state shouldn't
encourage high-water use crops like cotton or alfalfa at all. Cotton,
for example, uses about 3.5 acre feet of water per acre of plants
grown, compared to just over 2 acre feet of water for an acre of
corn. The water used to grow 100 acres of cotton could serve a
neighborhood of more than 100 homes for one year.
But farmers say they're producing needed products and contributing
to the economy. The water conservation program, they say, is evidence
that they're trying not to waste Arizona's water.
"It makes a huge difference for me," said Henness, whose family
farms about 3,000 total acres near here.
"It allows me to make decisions in the farm's best interests.
After 25 years, we've arrived where we should be."
It was just about 25 years ago when the Arizona Legislature
adopted the state's landmark groundwater code. The new laws focused
sharply on urban water use, but included a long list of new rules for
farmers in Prescott and in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties.
The most sweeping new rule appeared to be the ban on any new
irrigated lands in the affected areas. But farmers were much more
interested in the conservation guidelines, which assigned them a
level of water use based on what they had grown historically and how
much water they used.
That's what irked Henness. He was stuck with a smaller base line
than other farmers and that meant when lower use levels were
triggered every 10 years or so, he and others would find themselves
squeezed even more.
The new program attempts to remedy that problem. It's based on
best management practices and it frees farmers who are willing to
adopt those practices from the one-size-fits-all water budget. For
many, that means the chance to return acreage to production while
still conserving water.
"The key concept here is working lands conservation," said Bruce
Knight, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch
of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We're trying to put an end to
a concept that to conserve water, you have to idle the land."
Knight flew to Arizona in September to award the state Water
Resources Department a grant to run the best management practices
pilot program. The grant, $503,092, is part of a nationwide program
that recognizes the use of innovative technology and ideas to
"It's difficult to conserve water in agriculture," said Herb
Guenther, director of the Water Resources Department.
"This grant will enable us to do more. We will be able to monitor,
advise and look at new techniques."
Henness hopes programs like this will draw attention to efforts by
farmers to conserve water, battling the image that because they use
so much overall, they must be overusing it.
"The commitment of farmers to use conservation technology is
remarkable," he said. "It's very expensive. You put in a drip
irrigation system and you've bought the farm again."
And using too much water isn't good for crops, which hurts the
harvest and the farmer's bottom line.
"Arizona agriculture need make no apologies for its use of water,"
"It's just too precious of a resource."
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