In the middle of the dry, Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the Wuertz family (and several others) have been farming cotton for generations.
This was once considered an exciting accomplishment, but now it weighs on their consciences, as this now unneeded crop siphons so much of Arizona’s limited water supply.
The farmers understand that they could plant many other, less-water-consuming crops, but out of pride, habit, and a sinking feeling that they wouldn’t be good at anything else, they keep on keeping their cotton fields white and fluffy.
The government has always backed cotton over other crops, providing insurance and subsidies, which has left the farmers with very limited options.
Many people feel that it is high time the federal government, through their Farm Bill, subsidized other, more Eco-friendly crops like alfalfa or wheat and gave the farmers incentives to switch away from water-guzzling cotton, even though it is their life’s work.
The Tuscon Sentinel reports:
“If the Farm Bill reshuffled its incentives, water policy experts say, farmers in states that draw on the Colorado River could reduce their water usage substantially, adding large amounts back into the region’s budget.
According to research by the Pacific Institute, simply irrigating alfalfa fields less frequently, stressing the plant and slightly reducing its yield, could decrease the amount of water needed across the seven Colorado River basin states by roughly 10 percent. If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.
“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.”
Today Wuertz lives with the deep uncertainty that comes with a transition he can no longer control. He told his son, Thomas, 24, that there is no future in cotton farming. He says that if Arizona farmers keep planting cotton, farming itself may be in jeopardy. But knowing that and acting on it have so far been different beasts, and Wuertz finds himself resistant to change. He tried growing more cantaloupe but had difficulty finding buyers who would take the time-sensitive crop before it rotted. He’s planting some acres he used to plant with cotton with alfalfa instead, but that uses even more water, though it commands a premium price.
In the end, Wuertz said he doesn’t know how to grow other plants as well as he knows cotton. He’s been a gin director, president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, head of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. His identity is wrapped up in those prickly bolls out in his fields.
“When I quit cotton all of that goes away. Ninety percent of my life is gone. It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “I’m just not ready to do that yet. And it’s not to say I won’t get there.”
Here is a much more delicate problem than simply upgrading or repairing infrastructure – the problem of redesignating people’s livelihoods in order to preserve natural resources.
How can education and planning be put into solving this issue in order that the water is used for the biggest necessity? Can utilities help, or must the government bear full responsibility for this problem?
This is an issue for consideration across the United States, not just Arizona.
This is something to think about as you consider your water utility future demand planning and long-term water resource strategic planning.
In addition to water utilities, major changes in agricultural land use can have impacts on transportation networks, energy suppliers, service towns and associated infrastructure.
When considering the construction or replacement of long-life infrastructure it is good to ask the question – is the reason for the infrastructure going to be here in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time.
The analysis of these issues is completed in the Future Demand section of your infrastructure asset management planning.
PHOTO CREDIT: cobalt123 via Flickr Creative Commons License. The photo has been cropped and re-sized to suit website requirements.