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.”

Calling All Southern AZ Organizations: Do A Food-Related Survey For A Chance to Win $100

Pima County Food Alliance is taking part in a national study, conducted by Active Voice, to better understand what it takes to address hunger, obesity and food insecurity, and we’d like your help to get a better picture of what people know about these issues in our community.

We would like to ask for your participation in this Community Study by completing two time-sensitive steps at this time.

STEP 1 – Local Organization Questionnaire #1: please complete by Tuesday, September 17th – Local Organization Questionnaire #1 (CLICK HERE)

STEP 2 – We also ask your help in sending the email below to members of your network and community listserves, including any residents of your community, within the next 48 hours (SEE DIRECTIONS BELOW). This may include sending an email blast to your online contacts and/or posting the link on your social media feeds. The more widely spread it is the better. Please see directions below on disseminating this survey.

About the Study: The Take Your Place (TYP) Community Study involves 24 communities across the U.S. where at least one free screening of the film “A Place at the Table” is being held this summer or fall. Participation in the Community Study consists of completing three brief questionnaires over an 12 to 16 week period. Each questionnaire will take about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Participation is voluntary and your responses are confidential.

Community Study participants who complete the questionnaires will have the opportunity to win the following prizes: 

Questionnaire #1 (due Sept. 17): $100 Target Gift Card

Questionnaire #2 (down the road): $100 Target Gift Card

Questionnaire #3 (further down the road): $200 Target Gift Card

If you have any questions regarding the Take Your Place Community Study, please contact Active Voice Research & Evaluation Manager, Dina de Veer at dina@activevoice.net or 415-487-2000.

DIRECTIONS for Survey for your Individual Members:

1) Copy and paste ALL of the text from this blog post into a new email.

2) If you need a graphic, feel free to use the image below.

3) Edit the “Subject” line of the email to: “Take Part in Community Study; chance to win Target Gift Card”

4) Send widely!

A-Place-At-The-Table-logo

Calling All Southern AZ Residents: Do A Food-Related Survey For A Chance to Win $100

No this isn’t a SPAM post, it is actually food-related.  Good food, so nothing even remotely related to SPAM.  🙂

On a more serious note, did you know that one in four kids are hungry in America?

The Pima County Food Alliance is taking part in a national study, conducted by Active Voice, to better understand what it takes to address hunger, obesity and food insecurity, and we’d like your help to get a better picture of what people know about these issues in our community.

The information we collect will help us to better understand and serve our community. We hope that you will participate by completing this short questionnaire:

Please complete by Tuesday, September 17th – Community Member Questionnaire #1 (CLICK HERE)

About the Study: The Take Your Place (TYP) Community Study involves 24 communities across the U.S. where at least one free screening of the film “A Place at the Table” is being held this summer or fall. Participation in the Community Study consists of completing three brief questionnaires over a 12 to 16 week period. Each questionnaire will take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete. Participation is voluntary and your responses are confidential.

Community Study participants who complete the questionnaires will have the opportunity to win the following prizes: 

Questionnaire #1 (by Sept. 17): $100 Target Gift Card

Questionnaire #2 (down the road): $100 Target Gift Card

Questionnaire #3 (further down the road): $200 Target Gift Card

If you have any questions regarding the Take Your Place Community Study, please contact Active Voice Research & Evaluation Manager, Dina de Veer at dina@activevoice.net or 415-487-2000.

Thank you!

Many A Slip Between CAP And Lip

[This is the second in a series of blogs about water policy and issues in southern Arizona written by our Water Policy Intern, Marisa Tackett.]

Have you ever noticed those pools of water, shimmering in the afternoon sun over Avra Valley, west of Tucson? You can see them from the lookout at Gate’s Pass, and they’re an odd site, here in the desert.  If you’re like me, you may have wondered what they are.  Fortunately, I can now explain.  To do that, let me back up a little.

Arizona has, for most of its history, relied primarily on groundwater, a practice that has long been recognized as unsustainable. Tucson has suffered many well closures and water table decreases due to Tucson’s once exclusive dependence on groundwater. This is especially true for central Tucson.

From the inception of The Central Arizona Project (CAP), state politicians have been vying for Colorado River appropriations. In the aftermath of project approval, Arizona was forced to demonstrate that it would actually reduce groundwater use. Thus, the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 emerged, which created the Arizona Department of Water Resources and legislated an innovative and comprehensive water management plan that continues to impact Arizonans today.

Five geographical areas with a historically heavy reliance on groundwater were defined and subject to regulation pursuant to the groundwater code. These areas—known as Active Management Areas (AMA)—were based on projected population growth and key groundwater basins, rather than the political lines of city, towns, and counties. Each AMA has its own set of water management goals and the Tucson AMA aims to achieve a “Safe Yield” by 2025. The Safe Yield objective is to maintain a roughly equal balance between groundwater pumping and groundwater replenishment, thus protecting groundwater from overdraft.

In 1992, upon the completion of the CAP canal, Colorado River water was introduced directly to Tucsonans practically overnight. Hydrologists had not adequately accounted for the differences between the two types of water and did not anticipate the effect it would have on the existing infrastructure.  The water chemically reacted with pipes, resulting in brown water coming into many people’s homes. Upset Tucsonans passed local legislation in 1995, the “Water Consumer Protection Act” banning Tucson Water from directly distributing CAP water to customers, and requiring that CAP water characteristics match groundwater qualities. Tucson Water had to develop an acceptable way to utilize its newly acquired CAP water.

The answer to this conundrum was to let CAP water filter down into the ground where it could mix with the existing water in the aquifer before being pumped back up. To accomplish this, Tucson Water established 20 “recharge” basins at three sites where water is stored above ground and allowed to percolate down.  The project, known as the “Clearwater Program,” cost about $400 million to build, covers 500 acres, and allows 46 billion gallons (140,000 acre feet—Tucson’s full allotment) of CAP water to recharge annually.  Two of the sites are in Avra Valley, which explains the shimmering water visible from Gate’s Pass.  The other is on Pima Mine Road.

Here’s a neat graphic showing what Tucson’s water consumption looks like over time, in graphical form:

Tucson Water Use

Although per capita water use in Tucson has steadily declined, with population increases, the demands on water resources remain significant, potentially doubling by 2050 according to Tucson Water projections. The good news is that in the meantime the CAP recharge basins have allowed the water table to recover some, rising about 1.5 feet per day. The average depth to which the water percolates is 350 feet below ground, although in some places, where the water table is very deep, wells have been dug to 1000 feet. The basins also function as water banks to meet legislative requirements of maintaining an adequate amount of water. Tucson Water then pumps out the blended water from different areas of Tucson for delivery to customers.

Tucson finally has enough infrastructure to capitalize on nearly 100% of its CAP allotment, compared to 2011, when Tucson Water was only using 60% of allotted CAP water. Looking at Tucson’s total water use, recharged CAP water now accounts for approximately 75%, with groundwater, reclaimed water, and miscellaneous sources making up the rest (2012).

Although aquifer levels have increased in certain areas, many argue that reliance on CAP water is only a temporary fix in the current drought environment, especially with the Colorado River, the West’s most critical source of water, facing record low flows. In fact, new measures are being taken by the federal government to curtail water deliveries to some areas. In addition, the Colorado River Compact has set Arizona as one of the first states to be denied water, should the river shortages continue and water become more restricted.

Whilst our water providers assure us that Tucson’s water portfolio is diverse enough to sustain our population in times of severe water shortages, and maintain strategies and conservative measures to reduce water use, water is an undoubtedly finite resource that needs multiple strategies and approaches to sustain itself for our community’s future.

[Next post: Agricultural Water Use]