Sizing up Colorado River Water Fight

Arizona Farms' Crop Choices at Center of Colorado River Basin Water Dispute

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
Connect with Todd:
Farmers in the Colorado River basin are at the center of efforts to reduce water use in the basin where drought persists. (Photo courtesy of University of Arizona Geological Survey)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- With Arizona facing a 21% cut in Colorado River water allocations from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this year, an expert in water policy at Arizona State University said April 25 she's hopeful farmers won't be expected to alter their operations as the region grapples with declining water levels.

On April 24, the bureau opened bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam to allow three days of high-water flow from Lake Powell through the Grand Canyon. Arizona is in the middle of its longest drought in about 1,200 years.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said during a Farm Foundation seminar on water rights this week that Arizona farmers are facing increasing pressure to cut usage.

Agriculture accounts for nearly three-fourths of consumptive water use in the basin and that puts farmers squarely in the spotlight.

This has sparked public debate and discussion about a perceived need for farmers to move away from crops that require a lot of water.

The current cut in water to Arizona comes on top of an 18% reduction in 2022 with farmers feeling the brunt of those cuts.

"There's a very heated conversation currently in the state of Arizona about the use of groundwater for farming and particularly the use of groundwater for growing alfalfa," Porter said.

"Alfalfa is really being demonized here in Arizona. The reason is that the choice of growing alfalfa by a farmer is a rational choice based on a farmer's water rights and water availability based on a healthy market. The conversation is very misplaced. It would be worrisome if someone other than the grower -- who's the expert on the crop choice -- was making a call about what to grow. If we have a problem with the amount of water that's allocated to farmers, then let's work on that problem but not focus on crop choices."


Agriculture water use in Arizona has seen heightened controversy in recent months.

It was learned Saudi Arabia-owned alfalfa farms were pumping high volumes of groundwater in La Paz County and sending alfalfa to Saudi Arabia to feed dairy cows. That part of the state receives, on average, about 4 to 5 inches of rain annually. The state revoked the farms' well permits this week.

The debate on how to manage water in the Colorado River basin is coming down to be between cities -- lower-priority users -- and higher-priority users in agriculture, Porter said.

There are arguments being made that farmers should be compelled to leave water in the system because hydrologic systems need to have water, she said.

"And so, there's a theory that the Bureau of Reclamation has kind of an emergency authority to keep water running in the system, even if that water would be delivered to lower-priority users," Porter said.

"There's an argument that there's health and safety sort of theory that the Bureau of Reclamation could deliver water to users if their health and safety depended on it, even if those deliveries would not be consistent with priority. And finally, and I think maybe more interesting in this conversation is an argument that some agricultural uses of water are wasting water, in the legal term, (and) don't qualify as beneficial use."

Porter said farms have fewer tools to manage water use than urban areas, so urban areas have found creative ways to make the most of water supplies.

A recent study of the basin found interesting changes during the past four years as water levels continued to decline. Porter said water demand decreased by about 18% in the basin while population increased by 24%.

"So, for many reasons urban growth and water demands have become decoupled and cities are getting better and better at growing on limited supplies of water," she said.

"One of the biggest tools in the city is not available to agriculture is that cities can drive water use indoors and then reclaim all of that water."


The Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson areas reclaim about 93% of the water that enters wastewater systems.

"That is simply not a solution that's available to agriculture," Porter said.

"Now we're coming to the big challenge. We're looking at declining flows on the Colorado River and that means we have to figure out a way to leave water in the system."

Matt Moreland, owner of Moreland Farms in Braman, Oklahoma, has had his share of water battles with local towns and cities in his region.

Moreland said most farms are using the latest technology to control the amount of water used but there is a hesitancy to cut usage too much.

"Our own farms, you know, no till has been very important for us," Moreland said during the seminar.

"Also, irrigation technology has improved so much of how we can control ... center-pivot systems remotely. Another piece we're working with is ground-penetrating radar, learning our soil, every rotation the pivot makes and letting us know if we have excess water or not. But unfortunately, through the way the water rights are set up, if we don't use that maximum amount in a seven-year period, we'll lose it. So, another piece we need to figure out policy wise is if we start shedding and saving water, that we are penalized later for not using as much water."

Moreland said while federal multi-peril crop insurance is important for farms, loss of water is not a crop loss that can be paid for if farms don't have the water.


Porter said in the Colorado basin all interests are focusing on what farmers grow, particularly in Arizona. Those interests encompass seven states and Mexico, 29 Native American tribes, as well as irrigation for around 5 million agriculture acres.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the total market value of crops in Arizona was about $2.1 billion. Porter said the types of crops grown face increasing scrutiny.

"And what you see here is that more than 350,000 acres in Arizona are being dedicated to growing forage," she said.

"Another almost 200,000 acres are being dedicated to growing cotton. Those are very high-water crops and they are fairly low margin in terms of cash value. A much smaller amount of acreage is dedicated to growing vegetables and yet vegetables are compared with forage in cost. That voice might be a factor in consideration of what is a beneficial use of water as required for the use of water for agriculture."

Two years ago, the Colorado River basin had an average snowfall and yet flows were only 35% of average a year later, Porter said.

Average snowfall flows were somewhere between 65% and 85% of average this year, meaning recent snowpack has been good.

"So, we are expecting a little bit of relief in terms of storage, but it won't be enough snow for all the issues that we're seeing," Porter said.

What's more, she said estimates for the amount of water produced in the river were erroneous at the start.

"But we didn't feel the over-allocation because various parties that have an entitlement to water or would in the future have had an entitlement to water had not yet developed their entitlement," Porter said.

"They were leaving their waters, if you will. And so, we didn't see the effects of rotation until fairly recent history in many ways. We should not look at urban growth as a driver of the shortage on the Colorado River."


Though the issues are far from resolved in the basin, Porter said the shortage of water is pushing all interested parties to negotiate.

"Believe it or not I'm kind of optimistic that there will be resolution," she said.

"And part of the reason I'm optimistic is because things have gotten really bad and we have faced how bad it could be and that is what motivates people in the direction of collaboration and cooperation.

"I think in the big picture in terms of the interstate conflict we're at an unusual moment where there's quite a lot of funding available and money is really the key ingredient to getting people to voluntarily leave water in the system and to creating innovative programs that result in water being left in the system."

Read more on DTN: "Arizona Bears Brunt of Federal Cuts in Colorado River Water Flow,"…

Todd Neeley can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @DTNeeley

Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
Connect with Todd: