In the arid west, farmers shy away from fallow land to conserve water

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tom Brundy, an alfalfa grower 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’s installed water sensors and monitors on nearly two-thirds of his 3,000 acres to eliminate waste.

But one practice that’s taboo for Brundy is fallow land — leaving fields unplanted to conserve the water that would otherwise irrigate the crops. It would save a lot of water, Brundy said, but threatened both farmers and rural communities economically.

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

Many Western farmers feel the same way, although there is a growing sense that some brownfield land must be part of the solution to the increasingly desperate drought in the West, where the Colorado River feeds 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. “It’s just math.”

The US Bureau of Reclamation is considering paying farmers to leave some fields unused, many in California’s vast Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County, which grow much of the nation’s winter crops and rely on the river. Funding would come from $4 billion earmarked for western drought relief under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Federal officials and large irrigators have been negotiating for months. Neither side has disclosed details of the negotiations or said how much money is being sought or offered.

US Senator John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, said wasteland must be on the table. The challenge is finding fair payments when farmers farm land of different qualities and grow crops of different values, he said.

“Water in certain parts of the Colorado River drainage basin is worth more than water in other parts. And somehow the Bureau of Reclamation has to do it in a way that’s fair, or at least perceived to be fair,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.

Agriculture uses between 70% and 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and ideas to reduce this water use have long been controversial. Farmers and the irrigators who serve them say their water use is justified as almost all of the country eats locally grown produce as well as meat from cattle fed the locally grown grasses.

Water officials from cities and other states with lower demand from farms say the large-scale agricultural abstraction from the river allows wasteful agricultural practices to continue even as water becomes scarcer. They note that Western water rights, which give preference to older users, allow farmers with those rights to grow thirsty crops in converted deserts even as key reservoirs fed by the Colorado River drop to all-time lows.

Tina Shields is a water manager in the Imperial Irrigation District and advises farmers to start by conserving water through efficiency measures such as drip irrigation, choosing less water-intensive crops and using water sensors to reduce waste. However, she acknowledged that set-aside needs to be part of the equation as states follow a call from the federal government to reduce its use by 15% to 30%.

“As much as we don’t like wasteland,” Shields said, joking that the practice is known as the “f-word” down here, she said some amount is needed to conserve the additional 250,000 acres of water the district has said that it would save – or about 8% of its allotment from the Colorado River. (An acre of water is enough to flood an acre of land with a foot of water, and about as much as two to three US homes use each year.)

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

For 15 years, the Imperial Irrigation District ran wasteland programs under a historic water transfer agreement it struck with San Diego in 2003. The programs expired in 2017. Nearly 300,000 acres of farmland have been set aside, saving 1.8 million acres of water and $161 million in payments to farmers, the district said.

The Colorado River is now in worse shape, but memories of this program linger in the Imperial Valley. And the farmers want far more than they were paid for back then.

Larry Cox, who has been growing produce and grasses in the Imperial Valley for decades, said he had a few hundred of his 4,000 acres unused at the time. He used the payments to buy sprinkler pipes and other equipment to make his irrigation systems more efficient. But he also laid off between 5% and 10% of his workforce of irrigation workers, farmhands and tractor drivers.

Today he worries about the impact of the fallow land on rural communities. In addition to the potential economic losses for farmers, the companies that supply them with tires, fertilizers, gas and other necessities are also affected.

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

Many farmers also fear that land once taken out of production will no longer be farmed. Some of the fear comes from how water rights work in the West, but also because fallow land can degrade soil quality and make it difficult to bring the land back into production later.

Paul Brierley, executive director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona, said the disruption to farming operations had downstream effects.

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

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 an agreement. In this case, the farmers proposed that the government pay them around $1,500 per acre-foot of water not used for four years, but the deal fell through.

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.

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

“It’s certainly a business, but they also see it as doing a lot of good for the whole nation with what they grow out there in Yuma,” Buschatzke said.

Because farmers in the Imperial Valley have priority rights to water on the Colorado River, it is almost impossible to order water cuts there without litigating.

“We can’t force our growers to 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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