Exploring Fallowing Agreements and the Rural-Urban Water Conflict
By Emily Bookstein
B.S. Earth Systems, 2011
Six weeks ago, the mention of Arizona brought to mind the Grand Canyon, red deserts, and the heat of Phoenix in summer. Since I joined the Rural West Initiative to research agricultural use of Colorado River water, however, my mental images of Arizona have changed. The Central Arizona Project (CAP), not the Grand Canyon, now sets the scene: a long, concrete snake winding through the desert and over mountains, it carries water from the Colorado River to millions of people and thousands of irrigated acres. The red deserts, in fact, are interrupted by green fields of cotton, alfalfa, and lettuce. And I imagine that in shimmering Phoenix, state water managers and irrigation district representatives are busy negotiating over the huge pool of water currently invested in agriculture.
Growing crops in the desert, as evidenced by the Hohokam Indians' thousand-year-old canals, has long been Arizona's most water-consumptive tradition. The modern agricultural industry is no exception. It transforms 80% of all water consumed in the state into vegetables, cotton, and hay.
Yet in central Arizona, agriculture's near-monopoly on water has been challenged. In addition to the irrigation districts, Indian reservations and Arizona's fastest-growing cities have come to depend on water from the Colorado River via CAP. As urban areas continue to expand, and as shortage on the Colorado River looms, so grows the potential for rural-urban conflict over limited water.
This summer, I am working with the Center's Rural West Initiative investigating a strategy that could possibly mitigate that conflict: fallowing agreements. In a fallowing agreement, farmers and city water managers sign a contract stating that the city will pay irrigators to let a certain percentage of their fields go uncultivated. The water that would have been used to irrigate those fields is then transferred to the city for residential water supplies, landscaping, and other urban uses. Contracts range from one year to multiple decades in length, but the key point is that the water is temporarily leased by the city, not permanently transferred. In fact, collaborative working groups including university researchers, environmental advocacy groups, farm organizations, and urban water agencies, working together, have promoted fallowing agreements as a way to bolster drought-stressed urban water supplies while protecting rural communities from pressure to irrevocably sell their water rights.
In a recent blog post, John McChesney, the director of the Rural West Initiative, wondered if fallowing isn't in fact an answer-- at least, in the short term-- to the broader rural-urban water dilemma in the Colorado River Basin. Doesn't fallowing allow farmers' lifestyles to continue? To a landowner who desires to support his or her community, doesn't it make more sense to fallow 30% of your farmland than to have to sell all of it? The more I try to get to the bottom of the matter-- in central Arizona, anyway-- the more I think any attempt to answer that question might wander on as long as the Central Arizona Project canal itself, so complicated are water rights and the political controversy around them.
Nonetheless, in keeping with the mission of the Initiative to bring attention to the stories unfolding in the rural West, I aim to find out more about the potential impacts of fallowing agreements on rural communities in Arizona. With that goal in mind, my research has taken me out of Arizona and just across the state border, to Blythe, California. There, a high-profile fallowing agreement between the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District-- which supplies water to 18 million in LA and San Diego-- is entering its seventh year of implementation. I just returned from a two-day trip to interview farmers in Palo Verde about the fallowing program, and plan to apply that knowledge to the situation in central Arizona. (I'll be writing more on this later.) By the end of the summer, I hope to have contributed to an understanding of the use of fallowing agreements for sharing Colorado River water between Western cities and agriculture.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »