Water Management Research for Cotton Farmers

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Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona are working on a study to understand farmers’ perspectives on water management and how water policies affect their operations. ASU Associate Professor Hallie Eakin, who is working on the research, will talk about the study.

Ted Simons: Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona are studying the water management challenges facing the state's cotton farmers. For more on the study, we welcome Hallie Eakin, a professor at ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability. Good to have you here. Let's -- I know it says agriculture in general, but it seems like it's cotton focused. What is the state of the cotton industry in Arizona, especially when it comes to water management?

Hallie Eakin: Well, it's interesting. The last decade has been fairly dynamic for the sector in general. We've seen an economic recession here in central Arizona, central Arizona is one of the prime cotton-producing areas in the state. And the state is actually a really apt region for producing cotton. And economic recession has actually provided some opportunities. And coincided with relatively high commodity prices. So this has allowed farmers who might have gone out of business when housing prices were up and land demand was high, have stayed in business and leased land back from developers.

Ted Simons: It's interesting that the urban encroachments, land prices, we all have seen the cotton fields plowed under and the condos and houses put up. How much of a factor as far as the industry is concerned?

Hallie Eakin: I think that has had a major role since the 1980s. And one of the things we're really interested in is what have been the expectations about the sector and how much that has played out. We have seen definitely a decline in area farmed around Maricopa County, Pinal County, but recently the other issues have come up in terms of commodity prices really being something that has been favorable for farmers and the fact that development has slowed and there's a change in the way we are thinking about urban growth and urban expansion here.

Ted Simons: There's a perception that cotton uses lot of water. Is that true?

Hallie Eakin: Well, depends on what -- Relative to what. Yes, cotton is a water consumptive crop. Compared to some other alternatives, but also we have to think about the conditions in which cotton is grown here. And it's not only a crop that can survive in relatively salinated soils and with water quality that's also fairly high in mineral content and salts which vegetables, for example, may not do as well. So thinking about why cotton here, whether it's apt for desert, it actually does really well in the desert. Farmers don't want to be farming where there's a lot of rain.

Ted Simons: I found that very interesting as far as the study is concerned in that direct rainfall, you don't get enough direct rainfall, that's not that big of a worry according to the study that I read. Here. But boy, the Colorado River, Colorado basin, that's where it is a big factor.

Hallie Eakin: Exactly. Part of our study has been looking at what really are the things that worry farmers in terms of the viability of their production. One we often think agriculture is sensitive to drought, for example, local drought conditions. While we've had pretty severe drought conditions in the state over the last decade, farmers locally, the irrigated producers haven't been affected by lack of rainfall here. They are affected, however, by flows in the Colorado River because a lot of their water comes from the Central Arizona Product.

Ted Simons: So with all this information at hand here, what are you finding out here, how can water be better utilized for the cotton industry, what are the farmers' concerns and how are -- How can they can addressed?

Hallie Eakin: One of the things we're focusing on is the role of agriculture since the 1980s in water management for the state. That agriculture has played a key role in storing groundwater for future urban growth. In that there's been some incentives put in place so that the AG sector doesn't use the groundwater to which it has rights and instead uses surface water flows to keep that groundwater from being overexploited and being available for urban growth.

Ted Simons: And this is groundwater that exists primarily because of the cotton fields, or they help --

Hallie Eakin: The aquifer has always been there. But it is true that, and this is something we often don't recognize, that agriculture in using water, is actually replenishing. Some of that water is going back into the groundwater. So if that water is transferred to the urban sector, and we get housing development, the use of that water is going to change. It isn't necessarily going to have that same function in terms of returning to groundwater or helping replenish the aquifer.

Ted Simons: Back to the study and back to talking to farmers. What are they saying? What are their major concerns?

Hallie Eakin: One of the things that has emerged is that they are definitely -- They're not concerned necessarily about local drought, they are concerned about the viability and accessibility of water in the future. And that primarily coming from the Colorado River, whether projections about declining flows are going to affect the availability and the cost of that water. And that also has to do with electricity prices. Because not only does it -- Is the large part of cap water cost having to do with electricity price or pumping that water into the central Arizona, but also groundwater. If they turn back to use groundwater, that cost is also dependent on our hydrological resources.

Ted Simons: Does your research show that policymakers, urban planners, along with the farmers, all have something at stake here? Are you hearing -- Is everyone simpatico, or are they going in different directions?

Hallie Eakin: This may be an opportunity for the region as a whole to think about the future differently. We've tended to think of these sectors as kind of noncompatible, competitive, urban or rural. Urban or AG. But there may be actual synergies that we can be thinking of in terms of the different ways that agriculture can play in the future as Phoenix decides what kind of urban footprint we're really thinking about.

Ted Simons: And I was going to say, cotton is important to the state's footprint, is it not? It's one of the big Cs.

Hallie Eakin: It's incredibly important. It provides a significant economic contribution to the state, but it's also I think in terms of identity. We don't really think about that, but this is the history and the culture and the identity here.

Ted Simons: Pima cotton.

Hallie Eakin: Exactly. One of the five Cs.

Ted Simons: Hey, interesting stuff. It's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Hallie Eakin: Thanks so much.

Hallie Eakin:Associate Professor, Arizona State University;

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