In the arid West, farmers are giving up fallow land to conserve water

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tom Brandy, who grows alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley, believes farmers who depend on the shrinking Colorado River can do more to conserve 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 that is forbidden to the Brandi is hunting—leaving fields fallow to save water that would otherwise be used to irrigate crops. Brandy said this would save a lot of water, but economically threaten both farmers and rural communities.

“It’s not very productive because you’re just not farming,” Brandi said.

Many western farmers feel the same way, even as there is a growing sense that some levees must be part of the solution to an 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 Bushatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “It’s just math.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is considering paying farmers to sit idle in some fields, many of which are in California’s sprawling Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County, where most of the nation’s winter vegetables are grown and depend on the river. The funding will come from $4 billion earmarked for Western drought relief in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Federal officials and major irrigators have been negotiating for months. Neither side is disclosing details of the negotiations or saying how much money is being sought or offered.

US Senator John Hickenlooper, a Democrat from Colorado, said it is necessary to discuss the issue of the transition to the territory. The challenge is figuring out fair payments when farmers farm land of varying quality and plant crops of varying value, he said.

“Water in some parts of the Colorado River Basin is more expensive than water in other parts. And somehow the Bureau of Reclamation has to resolve this in a way that is fair, or at least perceived to be fair,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.

Agriculture uses 70% to 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and ideas to reduce it have long been controversial. The farmers and irrigators who serve them say their water use is justified because nearly the entire country eats produce grown in the region, as well as beef from grass-fed cattle grown locally.

Water officials from cities and other states that have less demand from farms say the large amount of farming from the river allows wasteful agricultural practices to continue even as water becomes scarcer. They note that a western water law that favors older users allows farmers with those rights to grow grain crops in the converted desert, even as key reservoirs feeding Colorado are at an all-time low.

Tina Shields, water manager for the Imperial Irrigation District, advises farmers to first conserve water by using drip irrigation, choosing less water-intensive crops and using water sensors to reduce waste. But she acknowledged that the drop must be part of the equation as states heed the federal government’s call to cut their use by 15% to 30%.

“As much as we hate evaporation,” Shields said, joking that the practice is known as “the F word,” but she said it would take a certain amount to conserve the additional 250,000 acre-feet of water the district said it would save — or approximately 8% of its allotment from the Colorado River. (An acre-foot of water is enough to flood one acre of land with a foot of water, and about what two to three US households use each year.)

Leaving fields idle to conserve water is not a new idea in the Imperial Valley.

For 15 years, the Imperial Irrigation District has run additional programs as part of a historic water transfer deal it struck with San Diego in 2003. The programs expired in 2017. Nearly 300,000 acres of farmland were developed, saving 1.8 million acre-feet of water and costing farmers $161 million, the district said.

The Colorado River is at its worst now, but memories of that program linger in the Imperial Valley. And the farmers want much more than they were paid then.

Larry Cox, who has grown crops and grasses in the Imperial Valley for decades, said he had several hundred of his 4,000 acres idle at the time. He used the payments to purchase sprinkler pipes and other equipment to make his irrigation systems more efficient. But he also let go 5% to 10% of his workforce of irrigators, farm laborers and tractor drivers.

Today, he worries about the impact of land on rural communities. In addition to possible economic losses for farmers, businesses that supply them with tires, fertilizers, gas and other needs have also been affected.

“It hurts our community as a whole,” he said.

Many farmers also fear that if the land is taken out of production, it will no longer be cultivated. Part of the fear comes from the way water rights work in the West, but also because evaporation can degrade soil quality and make it harder to return the land to production later.

Paul Brierley, executive director of the Hume Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona, said the farm’s disruption has ramifications.

“Agriculture is just like any other business,” Brierley said. “They have invested capital, they have employees, they have markets for their products. You can’t farm part of the time and not the rest of the time.’

A failed proposal by Yuma County farmers last year showed how difficult it can be for federal officials and the farmers they target to reach a deal. In that case, farmers offered the government to pay them about $1,500 per acre-foot of water unused for four years, but the deal came to nothing.

A measure of how much Reclamation is willing to pay was made in a separate offer to farmers in the Lower Basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada – at $400 per acre-foot.

Bushatzke said farmers in Arizona felt even the $1,500 offer was lower than they deserved based on what they make of the produce — not to mention how important it is to consumers, he said.

“It’s a business, of course, but they also see a lot of benefit to the nation because of what they’re growing in Yuma,” Bushatzke said.

Because farmers in the Imperial Valley own the primary water rights to the Colorado River, forcing water to be shut off here is nearly impossible without litigation.

“We can’t force our producers to participate,” Shields said. “We have to give them a business solution.”

Associated Press reporter Sam Metz contributed from Salt Lake City.

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