New report offers new farming practices to help during historic drought

Researchers hope to offer farms hope during the water crisis
Published: Feb. 25, 2023 at 10:51 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - A new report from the University of Arizona Southwest Center offers new farming practices and water policies that could help farmers during the historic water crisis.

These practices aim to keep the farming industry prosperous and sustain water in the lower Colorado basin.

“We don’t want to see any farms go permanently out of business, nor do we want to see barren soil with tumbleweeds on it for 10 years before we come up with solutions,” said Gary Nabhan, research social scientist at the University of Arizona Southwest Center.

According to the report, the Colorado River’s natural sources of replenishment are 20% lower in recent decades. This is attributed to the growing drought, warmer temperatures, and society using more water than the river is gaining.

Since the start of the year, Arizona’s water allocation from the Colorado River has been reduced by 21%. This is on top of the 18% drop in 2022.

The policy changes have forced many farmers to sell their land or stop the cultivation of parts. That will eventually cause soil erosion.

“A lot of farmland is having to be fowled because it’s just not viable for farmers to be able to farm with the little amount of water that they have access to,” said Erin Riordan, a conservation research scientist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Riordan adds that farmers are also using unstainable water sources such as groundwater.

“That’s not an infinite water source, that’s essentially fossil water that’s accumulated over many 1000′s of years, and once it’s depleted, we’re not going to recharge that water, and so those underground groundwater sources are going to continue to dwindle,” said Riordan.

But researchers say there are new solutions to the problem.

Crop transitioning is one possible practice. On areas of land that will not be used to make crop yields, farmers can start gradually mixing in more water-efficient crops such as agave.

“If you can start transitioning, even if it’s on part of your land, and trying some of these alternative crops or alternative practices, you can start coming up with a way where you can on a rough year, you still have options for being bringing revenue and support yourself,” said Riordan.

Nabhan adds that implementing agroforestry would also be another viable solution. Agroforestry is a system where trees grow around the crops to trap and hold water in the soil.

“Trees provide shade for understory crops and allow farmers to harvest two or more crops off the same acreage, and you can design those systems to have lower water use treat crops, but they also reduce the water loss from the field crops underneath them,” said Nabhan.

Other solutions researchers say include using high-value cash crops with low water usage and floodwater run-off.

“We’re looking at how we can use flood water runoff and even treated sewage effluent for tree crops that will reduce the amount of groundwater pumped or water from rivers, but still provide another source of water that farmers for some crops can utilize without generating any health problems or soil problems,” said Nabhan.

This report is among several other initiatives by the university to help support Arizona farmers.