Assessing Agricultural Needs in a New Era of Climate Information

Back to Summer 2013 Newsletter

by Summer Waters, Nick Pacini and Ayman Mostafa, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County

With drought persisting for more than a decade, municipal water managers have long been discussing strategies for coping with additional resource stress. The Central Arizona agricultural community faces the same challenge. Although agriculture was once expected to fade from Maricopa County, it remains economically relevant and continues to use 47 percent of the water supply, according to the Arizona Water Atlas. As growing demands for residential water stretch resources thin, the need for collaboration among agricultural and urban water users grows ever more pressing. Through a project entitled "Risk Perception, Institutions, and Water Conservation: Enhancing Agricultural Adaptation to Future Water Scarcity in Central Arizona", researchers have begun to analyze how agricultural water users are dealing with drought and an uncertain future that includes increasing projected population growth and a reduction of water supply.

In 2012, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County, collaborated with researchers from Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability under a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to survey over 200 farmers in Maricopa and Pinal Counties. Farmers were asked about their perceptions of drought, water supply, climate, and how policymakers react to climate information. A total of 52 surveys were returned. The results give interesting insights into farmers’ perceptions on the state of the water supply and climate.

Uncertainty regarding future water supplies looms large over farmers. On average, they reported having difficulty getting the amount of water needed for production four out of the last 10 years. Seventy-five percent of respondents reported that they cannot plan more than a few years in advance due to uncertainties. Long-term planning is crucial for viability in the market. In the current state of affairs, uncertainty can only be expected to increase.

In general, farmers are open to learning more regarding water and climate and their potential impacts on agriculture. More than 65 percent of the surveyed farmers reported that they are receptive to learning more about hydrological changes and climate issues. This demographic is often perceived as being ‘closed off’ to the notion of climate change, although people working closely with them know them to be progressive, quite often adopting new technologies related to their operations. These results should serve as a signal that, regardless of why climate change is happening, farmers acknowledge the need to know what to do about it.

The perceived disconnect between policymakers and the agricultural community is high. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they disagree with the statement that policymakers understand the role of agriculture in Arizona. Twenty-five percent simply were not sure.

Along with water supply uncertainties come demand issues. Another relevant survey finding is that 71 percent of farmers agree that agriculture is under threat by population growth.

Farmers in Central Arizona receive their water primarily from the Central Arizona Project, which is fed directly by the Colorado River. In the spring of 2013, the Bureau of Reclamation released the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which provides further support for water supply uncertainty concerns. The study reports exactly what the farmers are seeing on the ground: The largest increase in water demand will likely come from population growth. Using multiple growth scenarios to determine demand, the study projected population growth in the Colorado River Basin by 2015 in the range of 9.3 million (Slow Growth Scenario) to 36.5 million (Rapid Growth Scenario).

Farmers’ concerns over water supply uncertainty and emerging receptiveness to new climate information are pertinent and timely. Given the state of the climate and the style of water management in Arizona, it’s no wonder that farmers have a high level of uncertainty and apprehension surrounding policy. The current state of affairs does not bode well for agriculture in Arizona. In an era of rising temperatures and uncertain water supplies, "business as usual" will likely need to go by the wayside. Innovative approaches to farming will be needed for agriculture to remain viable in central Arizona. More conservative irrigation methods, such as sub-surface, sprinkler and drip, can save water. However, a majority of farmers in Central Arizona lease their land, making them reluctant to invest in new irrigation infrastructure. One change that is often proposed is to switch to crops or varieties that use less water. Indeed, 63 percent of the survey respondents reported that this would be their most likely strategy when faced with decreased water availability.

Ultimately, sustainability will require a comprehensive water conservation strategy to be implemented everywhere, from the residential tap to the irrigation ditch. Enacting stricter conservation measures for urban and rural users would be a good start, but much more will surely be needed to balance the needs of so many interests that are dependent on one thing: A reliable water supply.