Like Water for…Cotton?

[This blog entry was jointly written by Marisa Tacket, our water intern, and Nick Henry, one of our leadership council members.]

With this blog series, we aim to answer the question of whether and how water can be responsibly used to support a robust local food system.  Before going there, we should look at how water is currently being used for agriculture in Arizona.

The topic, as you can imagine, is weighty.   Agriculture in Arizona is a $12.4 billion industry, with much of that revenue concentrated across a small number of large farmers (only ~1,000 farmers generate more than $500,000/year). In total, farmland makes up about 35% of Arizona.

The top agricultural products by gross revenue are alfalfa, cattle, dairy, lettuce and cotton.  Let’s take a look at a couple of them in terms of water use.  Cotton is grown on approximately 200,000 acres around the state, an area of land slightly larger than Tucson.  Over the course of a season, cotton requires about 5 vertical feet of flooded irrigation water per acre of cotton (in other words, 5 acre-feet).  That makes for a total of 1 million acre-feet of water for cotton per year.  By contrast, last year Tucson Water’s entire service area used only 140,000 acre-feet.  Put another way, a small group of Arizona cotton growers uses seven times as much water as all Tucsonans combined.

The picture isn’t much better looking at the other top products.  Alfalfa requires almost as much water as cotton and the lettuce industry uses half the land area of Tucson but twice the water. [i],[ii]  Beef is one of the most water-intensive foods on the planet and yet Arizona produced 413.7 million pounds in 2010.[iii],[iv],[v],  In total, this required more water than all domestic uses in Arizona combined, and over 100 times as much water as Tucson alone. (Though it should be noted, that calculation includes water for growing feed, much of which is grown elsewhere and imported into Arizona.)  Overall, 69% of the state’s water goes towards agriculture.[vi]

The Source of our Water

Hearing all this, you might be asking, “Where does all this water come from, and how much does it cost?!?”  We’ve already talked quite a bit about water from the Central Arizona Project—Colorado River water piped into the interior of the state.  The other major source is groundwater, which became widely available during the 1930 and 40s as windmills were replaced by pumps run on cheap electricity.

As groundwater became available, lawmakers struggled to provide a legal framework to define and manage groundwater rights. The Groundwater Management Act (GMA) was finally implemented in 1980, which called for regulations and a permitting process within newly established Active Management Areas (AMAs).  Within each AMA, conservation was to be included in the management plans, as overdraft was becoming already becoming an issue.

While greater efficiencies have been achieved, that hasn’t necessarily translated to more conservation (or significantly less overall water use). The GMA was a giant step in the right direction, but also has some serious shortcomings.  To name a few:

  • Water rights were given to users who’d already been pumping groundwater based on peak usages from the period of 1975-80.
  • Unlike in some other states, groundwater is treated as a completely separate class of water from surface, when in reality the two are tied—serious decreases in one and can lead to decreases in the other.  Thus, encouraging heavy CAP use may actually decrease the availability of groundwater in some areas, and vice-versa.
  • Groundwater is basically unregulated outside of the Active Management Areas, many of which are now sucking water at alarming rates.
  • A water credit system was put into place.  In years when farmers were discouraged or required by federal programs to leave a field unplanted, rather than saving water, they could accumulate credits for future water use or sell the credits so others can use extra water.
  • Groundwater rights are transferrable, and certain types (including those for livestock) can be sold independently of land.

Overall, this has led to a situation in which “growers felt no constraint on their irrigation water usage” (Frisvold, Wilson & Needham, 2007) and overall water consumption has slowed down insufficiently.

The Cost of our Water

In an effort to relieve the burden on groundwater resources, CAP water has been pumped in at low cost to agricultural users for the past decade, starting out at $17/acre-foot and rising a dollar per year.  Tacking on all the additional costs associated with CAP water today, irrigation districts generally charge in the vicinity of $45-65/acre-foot of water.

To give a little perspective on these numbers, let’s compare it to domestic or municipal use.  Municipalities in Pima County pay a base rate of $161/acre-foot to access CAP water.  Factoring in all the other costs, the average Tucson Water user is charged a rate of $561/acre-foot (they consume far less than that per month, obviously).  For higher volume users, tiered pricing kicks in, and this number can increase by a factor of 10.

In other words, farmers pay somewhere between 1/10 and 1/100 the price municipal users pay for CAP.  While these low prices might, from a certain perspective, seem unfair, they have helped ease the burden on groundwater use.  Today, CAP supports about 300,000 acres of agricultural land, or approximately 36% of our total harvested croplands.

However, as drought continues and water rates increase, farmers are switching back to groundwater.   The overarching problem is that farmers have always had, and still do even under the GMA, access to all the groundwater they can use, at next to no cost.  Other than permitting their wells and paying for upkeep on infrastructure and the cost of energy to pump the water, the water is basically free.  The only long-term limit is whether the water table gets sucked dry, and how far down you can drill to keep accessing the water.  Federal subsidy and commodity support programs have only exacerbated the problem, allowing Arizona growers to turn a profit while converting their 3-5 acre-feet of water into crops that bring as little as $20/acre on the market.

Much of the legal system that governs water use was hammered out when water was considered a virtually infinite resource and the rights to it an issue of private property.  Today, it’s become increasingly clear that water is, in fact, a public resource, and one on which we all depend.  It’s time to start rethinking the way we use it, especially as it pertains to our food system.

[Next post: How can water be used to relocalize our food system?]


[iii] Estimates for water use in beef production range from 1,801-12,009 gallons of water/pound of beef.  Arizona farmers harvested 413.7 million pounds of beef in 2010, which in terms of water use means somewhere between 2.28-15 million acre feet.

[v] Gallons of water per pound of beef were quoted as 12,009 in Stephen Grace’s book “Dam Nation.”

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