March 1, 2023

A River Runs Through It: How Farmers Have Fought to Save the Colorado

If the history of the Colorado River were to be presented as a work of fiction, the depth of plot and complexity of the story would read like a great American classic. The churning, cutting power of the water that passes through the terrain of the West parallels the complicated human effort that goes into wrangling it.

For over 100 years, a growing civilization has utilized the river to irrigate agriculture and sustain large populations. But climate, the geography of the West and the Colorado River are reminders that the environment is a complicated and dynamic force, and the variance of water availability is a pressing reminder that adaptability has long been the key to sustainability.

Farmers have known that accessing the Colorado River and the human-manned systems that branch from it is fractal in its complexity. Every water agreement has finer details that reveal themselves on closer inspection, and every detail connects to another discussion, its nuance fine and delicate. Navigating successfully within the body of the system is surgical and varies from location of one farm to another. A solution for water sequestration for one operation isn’t the same for another. But all farmers along the path of the Colorado know one thing: they live or die by the natural and man-made flow of the river. Conserving water is paramount, as it has been for generations.

Robert Medler, Arizona Government Affairs Manager at Western Growers, summarizes the approach to finding solutions to current water availability realities: “Everybody’s looking for the silver bullet and you really need the silver buck shot. It’s going to be a whole bunch of little things that are all going to be great and that are all going to make a difference and make an impact.”


The wide-shot bird’s eye view begins with the Colorado River Compact signed in 1922. The collective enforcement of the Compact is commonly referred to as the Law of the River. In the early 20th century, representatives from the seven basin states came together to set a standard for allocation of the water flowing through the states: 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Upper Basin states—Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico—and 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada. The allocation was later changed in 1944 to allocate 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico.

The establishment of the Law of the River wasn’t the end of the negotiation. Instead, it became the skeletal structure that agricultural entrepreneurs would build their businesses, and these businesses would go on to stretch through generations, feeding millions of people along the way. Over a hundred years later, the environment has changed, and growers, government agencies and citizens are still fighting over water use in the West.

Responding to changing water availability isn’t new to California, and farmers have long played a role in conserving in order to make sure urban areas thrive. In the early 2000s, California invested in the infrastructure required to make better use of water. “In order to cut back to its allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet,” shared Mike Wade, Executive Director of the California Water Coalition, “urban areas in the state invested in water conservation. So Metropolitan Water District and Coachella Valley Water District and some others put a lot of money into on-farm water conservation. Most of it, if not all of it, is happening in the Imperial Valley. So, the Imperial Valley through voluntary on-farm and other conservation has generated 500,000 acre-feet of water a year that’s going to meet Southern California’s urban water needs. So that’s an example that we think other states can follow.” In response to the recent decline in water levels, California has put an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water on the table for conservation as well as another 350,000 acre-feet to be stored in Lake Mead for future use. “To avoid a large scale expensive legal battle, the Law of the River needs to be followed,” said Gail Delihant, Senior Director of California Government Affairs for Western Growers.

These proposals on top of the savings already taking place means that negotiations to sustain through dry years is just beginning. The answer to the negotiation of price for an acre-foot of water exists on a pendulum, and the range of this pendulum may be different depending on the location and other water resources available to a grower. But even the diversification of water resources is becoming strained.

In an effort to negotiate less agricultural water use, the Bureau of Reclamation has offered $400 per acre-foot, but for most, the offer is a non-starter. Some growers are saying that the dollar amount per acre-foot needs to be closer to $2,000 an acre-foot for the deal to make financial sense. With $4 billion now coming from the Inflation Reduction Act to the Bureau of Reclamation for the intended use to alleviate the pressures from a drying system in the West, some see that the space for negotiation of the dollar amount per acre-foot has widened. The positive outlook is that there’s an openness for discussion to find a solution for most people looking to the future of available resources and the longevity of their businesses. As a senior water rights holder, Larry Cox of Lawrence Cox Ranches said, “We recognize that it will take the engagement of Senior Ag to stabilize the reservoirs.”


For Arizona, the room for movement and negotiation has its own challenges. Access to water set by the Law of the River means that Arizona is allocated less of the amount set for the Lower Basin region. A growing metropolitan system in central Arizona has challenged or eliminated the water available for agricultural use over the decades. Areas on the western side of the state, cities like Yuma, have continued to have access to necessary water supply from the Colorado River because of early water rights.

Growers in the Yuma region have been mindful of their use throughout the years and are present to the resource’s value. “They have been extremely efficient,” Medler said, “and have continued to become more efficient with the use of water, use less water, get a substantially larger amount of product using less water…That’s the right way you want it to go. Substantially less water use. More product. They continue to go down that road.”

The environmental challenges associated with the Colorado River will always be a maze of complexity, built with the varied needs and perspectives of different players in different regions. The way through may be currently muddled in discussions and negotiations, but one thing is clear, growers will continue to accomplish the impossible: growing more with less and utilizing technology to get use out of every drop and to see the system and their role in it through a long lens.

Jack Vessey, President of Vessey & Co. in the Imperial Valley, shared insight from a company that just celebrated its centennial last year: “My dad, about 15 years ago, he had the forethought and said, ‘There’s going to be an issue here.’ There was a growing population, and we weren’t necessarily in a drought, but we had been through some droughts, nowhere near where we are today. That’s when we started investing in some more irrigation pipe and started to focus on really watching our water a little more closely than we ever have in the past.”

Vessey & Co. isn’t an anomaly when it comes to being aware and proactive about changes in resources in the grower community. Many are keeping an eye on emerging technologies to boost efficiency with less. Companies like Netafim’s drip irrigation technology and Agrology’s machine learning and artificial intelligence platform are two examples of the entrepreneurial and technological pieces to the possible solution puzzle.

Many farmers agree that they are key players when it comes to finding a solution to a depleting water supply. For a cultural system to continue to flourish, people need to have access to good food. Cutting a vital resource to the people who grow that food isn’t an option. As Delihant said: “We can’t grow food out of thin air.”