Farm Bureau discusses its views on water policy, stewardship strategies

As part of its ongoing examination of Arizona groundwater policy, Chamber Business News is visiting with water experts and policy leaders about their views on groundwater and what they believe are the defining issues for one of the state’s most pressing challenges.

Today CBN visits with Chelsea McGuire, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Chamber Business News: Chelsea, tell us about your job at the Arizona Farm Bureau and Farm Bureau’s structure.

Chelsea McGuire:  I am the director of government relations at the Arizona Farm Bureau. It’s my job to put our Farm Bureau members who are farmers and ranchers in front of the right decision-makers they need to talk to when they’re facing an issue. That could be state legislators, other types of regulators, it could be state agencies.

One of the things that we are really proud of and really protective of is our grassroots structure. Every county in Arizona has an active county Farm Bureau. And those county farm bureaus are all members of the state Farm Bureau, which is the organization I work for. Those county members are the producers of food and fiber in this state who’ve come together and said they want to be part of an organization that can represent farmers from an advocacy perspective and then also from a communications and education perspective. Everything that we do is driven by our grassroots membership.

CBN: Is it fair to say that water and water policy is an issue that’s top of mind for Arizona Farm Bureau members?

Chelsea: Not only is it fair, but I can’t emphasize enough how top of mind it is. Every member that I talk to, it’s their issue number one. Why it’s such an important issue is a little bit different for every member, depending on what they raise, what they produce, where they’re located and what their operation looks like.

CBN: Would you say that farmers are good stewards of Arizona’s water resources?

Chelsea: I would and I do say that quite often, and there are a few reasons for that. The most obvious is that water is the most important resource that our farmers need. If you’re not a good steward of that resource, you’re not a very good businessperson because water is a finite resource – you must have it to grow whatever it is that you’re growing. If you waste water, it’s money out the door.

Another reason is that farming is such a generational industry. When I’m talking to ranchers or farmers or whoever it is, oftentimes their biggest goal and their deepest desire is that their children will be able to take over their operation. They know that for that to be possible their children are going to need those resources, too. So, it doesn’t make sense for them to take what they have and use it badly and ruin it for the next generation when what they want to see is that future generation being even more successful.

Water stewardship is the natural way of things when it comes to agriculture.

CBN: Do your members rely on a mix of surface water and groundwater?

Chelsea: It’s going to depend on where they’re located. The big topic of conversation recently has been central Arizona and the farmers located in Pinal County, especially. Their typical mix has been about 50-50 groundwater to surface water. In the next few years, it’s going to look extremely different because their surface water source is no longer available, thanks to the shortage on the Colorado River. They’re going to be transitioning much more heavily to a groundwater source.

In Yuma, you’re looking a lot more skewed to surface water because they’re located on the Colorado River. When we’re talking about our vegetables, our leafy greens capital of the world, most of that production is reliant on the Colorado river on surface water.

And if you go to the corners of the state when we’re talking the Wilcox basin or up in Mohave County or La Paz County, that’s going to be very heavily groundwater reliant because there’s not a great infrastructure to get that surface water to communities, making it more groundwater intensive there.

CBN: How do you respond when someone says agriculture and agribusiness is a big part of Arizona’s legacy, but it’s just too water-intensive and that we can’t continue to support farming the way we might have in generations past?

Chelsea:  I think I respond that legacy is a lot less important than security. And there’s a reason that Arizona has the economy that it has. Having agriculture as a part of our economy isn’t just good from a dollars and cents aspect. It’s good from a food security aspect. We’re able to grow so much of what we rely on right here in our state. I understand the complexity of the agricultural economy and that we’re not just eating things in Arizona that we grow here in Arizona. But we are able to have an extremely robust local food supply because of the agricultural economy that we support. And if COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that supply chains are very fragile, especially when we’re talking about agricultural supply chains, which are just-in-time supply chains, because that’s the way that they’re most efficient.

So, if we’re talking about whether agriculture is too water-intensive and whether we ought to put that water to higher, better uses, my argument is actually that agriculture is one of the highest and best uses of water not just because of the economic prosperity it provides, but because of the ability that it gives our state and our country to feed itself.

CBN: Thinking about groundwater, does agriculture have a strategy or methods to replenish aquifers?

Chelsea: One of the great things about irrigation is that it delivers a natural recharge. When you’re irrigating a crop, it’s going into the ground, the plants aren’t using the entirety of that water. Some of that water is naturally going to recharge the aquifers beneath the ground. Now, is that the same as a developer who’s intentionally pumping thousands of acre-feet into a recharge facility? No. But there are other environmental benefits that agriculture has as well.

Air quality is a huge issue in this state. We have several non-attainment areas for air quality that are mostly related to dust. When you have a fallow field, that’s where dust comes from a lot of the time. But, if you have something that’s covering that field, a crop that you’re growing, that’s really important for that air quality because it keeps the soil healthy. Soil health is another big thing that agriculture doesn’t get enough credit for considering all the carbon sequestration that happens through agricultural production.

We’re using water to grow plants that are taking carbon from the atmosphere to do what it needs to do, putting some of that carbon back into the soil, which has incredible benefits to your soil structure. Plus, we’re taking greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere where we don’t want it and putting it somewhere where we do want it. It also creates wildlife habitat, creates insect diversity, and attracts pollinators. Agriculture doesn’t get the credit that it should have for what it does.

CBN: Central Arizona and Pinal County specifically is a hot area for industrial development and new job creation. Does the Farm Bureau believe we can strike that balance between development in the region and agriculture, or does one sector necessarily need to win out?

Chelsea: I think we can strike that balance. I think it’s really hard to do. And it’s hard to do without the perception that someone is a winner, or someone is perceived as the loser, but there are certain principles that you can use to guide that development. One of the things that our policy states is that we believe development should drive to where there is water. That may seem a little counterintuitive because agriculture is where there is water, but driving development to agriculture does a couple of things.

The first is that it helps maintain agricultural land values. In a business like agriculture that is so capital intensive and has very narrow profit margins, you’re borrowing against that land value most of the time. If we know that there’s development happening in that county, that land value is going to increase and actually allows farmer to have a little bit more cushion there to keep producing the food that they produce until they decide it’s the right business decision for them to move on to something else.

The other thing is that you still need agriculture to support development, and you do to some extent need development to support agriculture. We want rural communities to have great schools to send their kids to. We want them to have great hospitals when they need medical care. All of those things work together. And there’s really no reason that we have to be one or the other. We just have to make sure that those incentives and those policies are there to support both of those things, which are both critical to our economy and our state.

CBN: Is it a frustration for the Farm Bureau that development and agriculture are pit against each other?

Chelsea: I think it is. One, it doesn’t have to be that way, and two, just because the two do really need to work together well to make the decisions that need to be made. You’ll find that we agree a lot more often than we disagree.

CBN: Let’s say a newly elected legislator comes to the Farm Bureau and says, “I know I need to learn more about this topic of water. I need to learn more about groundwater and the difference between groundwater and surface water hydrology, but I’m not really sure where to start. What are some key principles that you recommend I adhere to as I try to figure this topic out?”

Chelsea: In terms of general principles, I would say most of Farm Bureau’s water policy is really underpinned by the idea that water is a property right. The use of water belongs to the land. It should not be taken from a landowner without proper compensation. Of course, that can be really tricky with what Arizona’s water law looks like. That statement that water rights are inviolate and water is a property right goes against some of what Arizona water law says. That automatically puts us in a somewhat strange position, but that’s really what we start with. This is a right. This is an important integral inviolate, part of land ownership.

The other aspect I would say underpins our policy is that one size does not fit all. When we try to create regulation to manage a resource that blankets the state, that doesn’t really work because the water situations look so different from basin to basin. We really appreciate our current Legislature recognizing the uniqueness of our local communities and trying to figure out what regulatory structures can look like that respect and work within those communities.

Third, because of the unique situations of our local communities and because every water user has a different need in that conversation, there has to be meaningful representation of the water users whenever you’re talking about water regulation. You’re not going to know what those local needs are if you’re not actually talking to the people using water in those localities. Farmers and ranchers believe they have to have a seat at the table as someone whose opinion is respected and valued and reflected in the ultimate decisions that are made.

CBN: In central Arizona we’re asking farmers now to shift to greater reliance on groundwater from surface water. Does that sometimes mean drilling new wells, or is it relying on existing wells?

Chelsea: It’s a combination of both. Agriculture in Pinal County prior to the 1980s was entirely dependent on groundwater because there was no such thing as the CAP (Central Arizona Project) canal. They couldn’t bring Colorado River water to the county. There was a lot more agriculture in Pinal County then. It was a lot of water being used, and they were starting to see some detrimental environmental effects of that. Subsidence is the thing you’re always going to hear about. That was one of the things that spurred the Groundwater Management Act and got Pinal County onto this increased mix of water sources. So, they began using a whole lot less groundwater and a whole lot more surface water.

There’s always been a groundwater delivery infrastructure in Pinal County, and that’s still there, it’s still functioning, it’s still efficient, but now we need to ramp that up significantly to make up for hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of surface water they’re not going to get anymore. So, they’re going to rely on their existing wells, they’re going to drill new wells, and they’re going to revamp some old wells that maybe aren’t as efficient as they need to be.

CBN: What are the limits on what farmers can take out of their well?

Chelsea: That’s another one of those questions that it depends on where you are in the state. When we’re talking about Pinal County, or in any of the Active Management Areas across the state, agricultural land has associated with it certain pumping rights. Those rights are going to look a little bit different across the AMAs, but that’s what the farmer is limited to. And that’s what the Arizona Department of Water Resources measures and manages and lets farmers know whether they’re within their allotment. Or, if they’re in a best management practices program, the farmer reports on their management practices they’ve put into place to make sure they’re not pumping more than they need to.

CBN: If you were to ask members of the Farm Bureau, are farmers satisfied operating under the current groundwater code? Does it need to be updated? Does it need to be thrown out and we need to start over, or is there no prevailing opinion on the Groundwater Act?

Chelsea: I would say we have a complicated relationship with the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. We definitely recognize what it did to help us manage this resource more effectively and put into place an expectation of what wise water use looks like.

There are aspects of that code, like the irrigation non-expansion areas, that are focused solely on agriculture. We think that there’s an issue there. If you talk to some of my members, they would also tell you that agriculture is subject to stricter provisions under the code than some of the other industries. Then again, if you talk to the other industries, they’re going to say the same thing.

There are some building blocks of that Act that make a lot of sense and have done some really good things for the state and have helped industry stay successful within the state.

Sometimes when you put big, landmark legislation into place, you don’t always think about what the worst possible scenario that could happen under the act. You have to make exclusions or make exceptions to get policy passed. That’s just part of politics.

Are all of the specifics of the Act what we would like them to be? No. Are the building blocks and the principles that guide the Act essential to wise water management for the areas where it’s in place? Yes. Does that mean it’s going to work in Wilcox or Mohave County to have an AMA? No.

CBN: What about criticisms from people who talk about water-intensive crops and that farmers ought to grow something else? What is the response to that? Is that a fair criticism, or is it a lot more complicated than simply just growing something else?

Chelsea: It’s so much more complicated. Sure, we can grow something that’s less water-intensive, but can we actually sustain a business growing that crop? Additionally, what kinds of industry do those water-intensive crops support? Alfalfa is the one that I always use as an example because alfalfa is responsible for our dairy industry. Dairy is a great, highly nutritionally dense protein source. It’s something that we want local because it’s also highly perishable. Importing dairy products from other places is extremely expensive and makes the products less readily available. Moreover, having that feed source close to the dairy makes it an extremely efficient business as well, because you’re not transporting a feed source all the way to the dairy and not transporting the dairy products all the way to the retail customer.

As for the argument that we need to grow less water-intensive crops because that’s more sustainable, I believe that’s a very narrow way of looking at sustainability. If something is not producing a product that humans need, is it really sustainable?

I think alfalfa is a good example, because, yes, it requires a lot of a particular resource, but it also means that we’re saving resources and things like fossil fuels because we’re not transporting that alfalfa a far distance and we’re not transporting the milk on the other end. It also means that we have things that are more locally available and meeting the consumer preference for a local food supply. If you look at sustainability on a much more holistic view, just because something is resource-intensive does not mean it’s not sustainable.

CBN:  Do you have members who would be interested in bringing more high-tech irrigation technology on board? What is your reaction to those who say it’s time to get some new technology into the fields?

Chelsea: I think agriculture is often criticized as not being an early adopter of technology, and there’s some fairness to that criticism for sure. But there are also some farmers who really break that mold, and necessity is also the mother of both invention and innovation. When you’ve got a farmer who’s facing what Pinal County farmers are facing, absolutely, they’re going to be willing to do whatever they can to keep their business model alive.

But that next best, greatest irrigation technology has to make sense for the farmer’s soil profile, their geography, for what they’re growing, making sure that they can get water to a seed to germinate it and then get water to a plant to grow it. They also have to be able to afford it, because if you’re going to sink all of your money into the technology and then not actually have enough of it to produce the crop that the technology is supposed to help you with, that’s not a great business model.

So, yes, farmers are absolutely willing to adopt that technology, whether it’s irrigation technology, whether it’s seed breeding technology, whether it’s chemical application in a more precise way, all of those things, but they have to be able to prove that it works and they have to be able to prove that it’s worth the money that it’s going to take.

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