Sustainable Farming in the Desert
The Colorado River provides water to portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, nearly all of Arizona, and Mexico. Split into the upper and lower basins by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Lake Mead, the lower basin of the Colorado River, supplies water exclusively to Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico.
At its maximum, the lake can hold over 26 million acre-feet of water but the last time the lake reached maximum capacity was 1983. Today the lake sits at less than 40% full.
For two decades, The Colorado River system has experienced severe drought conditions. Over that time, Lake Mead’s water levels have continued to decline. This decline has led to a shortage which will trigger decreased delivery levels of water to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico.
Arizona, which relies most heavily on the Colorado River for its water supply, will face the most significant impact during a shortage, affecting residential and agricultural water supplies.
What Will a Shortage Mean for Farming in Arizona?
The Colorado River provides 36% of Arizona’s water supply each year, making it the largest renewable water source for the state. From that 36%, approximately 70% of the water supply is used for agriculture. This water has been used by farmers to irrigate their crops for several decades, but as temperatures rise and the river water depletes there are grave consequences on the horizon for Arizona farmers.
In an effort to reduce the state’s usage of the river, Arizona established a drought plan that outlines water cuts for central valley farms among other measures. The majority of the water cuts though will fall on Pinal County farmers who will lose 97 billion gallons of water compared to previous years. As a result, many farmers are already planning to fallow approximately 20% to 40% of their land or are unsure what they can do due to the water shortages.
Groundwater Isn’t the Solution
Where people haven’t been able to contract river water, they have instead turned to the water in the ground. While these aquifers may seem like another option to supply water, they too have seen drastic decreases in their water levels due to pumping at an unsustainable rate. This pumping is depleting the groundwater supply at a rate that cannot be replenished by surface water, even with established Active Management Areas.
What Can Be Done?
Protecting the water from the Colorado River that flows to Lake Mead is one of the most important things that we can do to improve the current conditions. Climate change studies indicate that temperatures will more than likely only continue in the coming years, further threatening our chances of achieving water sustainability in Arizona and the challenges that come from sharing the Colorado River. By remaining cognizant of our conditions and water use for farming, we can take steps towards achieving a more sustainable future in Arizona with thriving cities and farmlands.