WASHINGTON (AP) — Tom Brundy, an alfalfa grower in California’s Imperial Valley, thinks farmers who depend on the shrinking Colorado River can do more to save water and use it more efficiently. That’s why he installed water sensors and monitors to prevent waste on nearly two-thirds of his 3,000 acres.
But one practice off limits to Brundy is set-aside – leaving fields unplanted to conserve the water that would otherwise irrigate the crops. It would save a lot of water, Brundy said, but threatens both farmers and rural communities economically.
“It’s not very productive because you just don’t burp,” Brundy said.
Many Western farmers feel the same way, even as awareness grows that some set-aside will have to be part of the solution to the increasingly desperate drought in the West, where the Colorado River serves 40 million people.
“Given the amount of water used by agriculture in the Colorado River system, you can’t stabilize the system without reducing agriculture,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “That’s just math.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is considering paying farmers to leave some fields unused, many in California’s vast Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County that grow much of the country’s winter vegetables and depend on the river. The funding would come from $4 billion set aside for Western drought relief in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Federal officials and major irrigators have been negotiating for months. Neither side has disclosed details of the negotiations or said how much money is being asked or offered.
US Senator John Hickenlooper, a Democrat from Colorado, said set-aside should be on the table. The challenge is finding fair payments when farmers work land of different quality and plant crops of different value, he said.
“Water in certain parts of the Colorado River basin is worth more than water in other parts. And somehow the Bureau of Reclamation has to deal with that fairly, or at least experience it that way,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.
Agriculture uses between 70% and 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and ideas to reduce that have long been contentious. Farmers and the irrigators who serve them say their water use is justified, as nearly all of the country eats the produce grown in the region, as well as meat from livestock fed on locally grown grass.
Water officials from cities and other states with less demand from farms say the large harvest of agriculture from the river allows wasteful farming practices to continue even as water becomes scarcer. They note that Western water law, which favors older users, allows farmers with those rights to grow thirsty crops in the converted desert even as the major reservoirs fed by the Colorado fall to record lows.
Tina Shields is water manager for the Imperial Irrigation District and advises farmers to save water first through efficiencies such as drip irrigation, choosing less water intensive crops and using water sensors to reduce waste. But she acknowledged that set-aside will have to be part of the equation as states heed a call from the federal government to cut their use by 15% to 30%.
“As much as we don’t like fallowing,” Shields said, joking that the practice is known as the “F-word down here,” she said an amount will be needed to conserve the additional 250,000 acre-feet of water that the district has said it would save — or about 8% of its Colorado River allotment. (An acre-foot of water is enough to submerge an acre of land with a foot of water and about how much two to three American households use per year.)
In the Imperial Valley, leaving fields unused to save water is not a new idea.
For 15 years, Imperial Irrigation District ran fallow programs as part of a landmark water transfer agreement it entered into with San Diego in 2003. The programs ended in 2017. Nearly 300,000 acres of farmland were set aside, saving 1.8 million acre-feet of water and costing farmers $161 million in payments, the district said.
The Colorado River is in worse shape now, but Imperial Valley is where the memories of that program linger. And farmers want much more than they were paid back then.
Larry Cox, who has been growing produce and grasses in the Imperial Valley for decades, said he had several hundred of his 4,000 acres vacant at the time. He used the payments to buy sprinkler pipes and other equipment to make his irrigation systems more efficient. But he also let go between 5% and 10% of his workforce of irrigators, farm workers and tractor drivers.
Today he is concerned about the effect of set-aside on rural communities. In addition to the potential economic losses for farmers, the businesses that supply them with tires, fertilizer, gas and other needs are also affected.
“It harms our community as a whole,” he said.
Many farmers also fear that once land is taken out of production, it will no longer be worked. Part of the fear stems from the way water rights work in the West, but also because set-aside can affect soil quality and make it difficult to return the land to production later on.
Paul Brierley, executive director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona, said disrupting agricultural activities has downstream effects.
“Farming is like any other business,” Brierley said. “They have invested capital, they have employees, they have markets for their produce. You can’t just farm part of the time and not the rest.”
A failed proposal from farmers in Yuma County last year showed just how difficult it can be for federal officials and the farmers they’ve targeted to reach a deal. In that case, the farmers proposed that the government pay them about $1,500 per acre of water that had not been used for four years, but the deal fell through.
A measure of how much Reclamation is willing to pay came in a separate bid made to farmers in the Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — for $400 per acre-foot.
Buschatzke said Arizona farmers felt even the $1,500 offer was less than they deserved based on what they make of the produce — never mind how important it is to consumers, he said.
“It’s a business for sure, but they also see it as doing good for the whole nation with what they grow there in Yuma,” Buschatzke said.
Since Imperial Valley farmers have higher rights to the Colorado River’s water, mandating water cuts there is almost impossible without filing a lawsuit.
“We can’t let our growers participate,” Shields said. “We have to give them a business decision.”
Associated Press reporter Sam Metz contributed from Salt Lake City.
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