September 1, 2015

Ag Needs Voice in Water Discussions

By Robert Shuler

We know that agriculture must have water to produce food and fiber.  Whether it’s vegetables or livestock, cotton or strawberries, agriculture cannot survive without water.

These are obvious statements that all of us in agriculture understand very well.  Sadly, the public and many political decision makers don’t understand this fact.

Especially these days.

It should go without saying that agriculture must be considered and be at the table whenever water is discussed.  Instead, what we find is that while agricultural water usage is almost always on the table when water is being discussed, agricultural must consistently insist, if not demand, that we have a seat at the table rather than being on the table during water discussions.

We frequently express our frustration with the lack of understanding among the public about agriculture.  Throw water into the mix as you try to educate the public and the level of understanding becomes even more murky.

Water is something that is absolutely required for all life.  That’s true whether it’s for humans living in a city, livestock grazing in a pasture, or crops growing in a field.  Now magnify the public’s lack of understanding of our industry and our use of water through the lens of the public’s comfort, convenience or even survival.  You can see that the public’s lack of understanding can easily overwhelm and outweigh our understanding of the absolute necessity of this essential agricultural input.

Agriculture must be at the table to protect our businesses as well as to continue to feed and clothe society.  The opportunity to be at the table during water discussions has presented itself many times in California and Arizona

Thirty-five years ago when the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980 was adopted, our industry was at the table and agricultural water usage was the target.  Among other things, the act established a timeline for reduction and elimination of groundwater pumping in certain areas of the state by creating Active Management Areas (AMAs) and irrigation non-expansion areas.

Because agriculture was at the table, the ability to farm within AMAs using groundwater was maintained.  No new farmland could be put into production within an AMA.  However, lands that have been certified, based on historic water use, could continue to be irrigated with groundwater.

Western Growers and its members are at the table as current water issues are being debated and decided in Sacramento.  Western Growers and its members are leading the effort in Washington D.C. to address water challenges in the western United States.

Today, public sentiment regarding water is being aroused in the media on a regular basis.  Articles, blogs, and other forms of communication describe the problems, define the issues, and suggest solutions.  Often this occurs without adequate or any input from agriculture.  Some suggest agriculture should no longer be preserved in the arid Southwest.  Some suggest that large populations should not be living in the Southwest because of the lack of sufficient water.

Well-respected water authority, former Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona, is calling for new leadership and planning on water issues in Arizona.  Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is considering statewide meetings to discuss water challenges.  Others are demanding a “Citizens Advisory Panel” to provide advice to regarding an overhaul of Arizona’s water laws and institutions.

In anticipation of these discussions, an Arizona Agricultural Water Summit is being called for this fall.  Western Growers and its members will be at the table.  As our colleague AnnaMarie Knorr has so passionately and clearly articulated:

“The Arizona Agricultural Water Summit is designed for Arizona’s agricultural water users to have a conversation—a conversation about water.  A conversation about public attitudes related to agriculture and its use of water in Arizona (including research results from the most comprehensive Arizona agricultural water survey of public attitudes about agriculture and water in Arizona’s history); a conversation about what regional needs or insecurities exist; a conversation about how the various segments and locales of agriculture see their water future; a conversation to understand the needs, fears or desires of various segments; and a conversation about how we might develop a stronger coalition of agricultural water users which means listening and speaking to each other.”

As she notes, when the public and politicians call for change, agriculture needs to speak with a common voice or at least with an understanding of, and respect for, where the differences in agriculture exist.  Otherwise we are doomed to failure or at the very least, to being considered a minor, unimportant player and not allowed a seat at the table, as our livelihood is being dissected and disseminated.