Water Worries in the Arizona Desert

Posted on January 30, 2015

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“American Heritage” by Doug Smith

When we visited the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, we saw several paintings from Doug Smith’s American Agricultural Landscape series. They struck me as odd, since the works all depicted Midwestern farm scenes, but a quote Mr. Smith attributed to an anonymous source stuck with me:

“Man, despite his sophistication and his many accomplishments, owes his existence to a six inch layer of top soil and the fact that it rains.”

Well, it doesn’t rain much in Arizona, but that hasn’t stopped the state from developing a very robust agricultural economy.

In fact, we were quite amazed at the diversity of agriculture here, even though the availability of water for any use has always been – and always will be – an on-going concern.

Average annual precipitation in Arizona ranges from 8 to 18 inches. The Valley of the Sun, outside Phoenix, is on the low end of the rain gauge. But this is where you find bright green fields nestled against the ubiquitous sand-colored sprawl of ever-growing housing ‘communities’. This is also where you find huge dairy and poultry operations, cotton gins and farm equipment dealers.

Agriculture has always thrived here, thanks to its unique climate – a year-around growing season in the valleys and winter snow in the mountains.

In ancient times, the Hohokam people supported a thriving farming community through an elaborate network of canals utilizing water from the Salt River and other minor tributaries carrying snow-melt down from the mountains. These native people eventually vanished, probably after a prolonged drought, but they left behind 135 miles of canals.

Settlers in the mid-1860’s quickly figured out what the dry lines in the sand meant, and dredged out at least one of the old canals, beginning a new era of desert agriculture.

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Arizona’s Central Canal Project delivers water from the Colorado River.

Today, thanks to canals, dams, dam-made lakes, and an aquifer shared with several other states, sources claim Arizona has a $6.3 billion agricultural industry with over 7,000 farms and ranches scattered across the state.

Beef is Arizona’s leading agricultural product, but not the only one by far.

A state website claims Arizona grows enough cotton each year to make more than one pair of jeans for every man, woman and child in the U.S, while the state ranks second in head lettuce, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli production.

Arizona also ranks second in the production of lemons, third in tangerines, and 4th in the production of oranges and grapefruit.

Paloma Dairy, Gila Bend

Paloma Dairy, Gila Bend

And, the website goes on to say, there are 140,000 dairy cows in Arizona with a yearly milk production average of 21,705 pounds per cow. We drove past several huge feedlots where the boys are fed until they’re ready to be shipped off for finishing into beef.

Though ranching and agriculture may be the state’s second-largest source of revenue, sources say it consumes 70% of the state’s water.

Water – the lifeblood of all living things is a very contentious subject in Arizona.

The state has been quite creative in obtaining and managing water, but will have to stay on their toes as an ever- growing population is demanding ever more water.  Many feel this resource is getting used up far faster than it can renew itself, and they may be right – after all this IS the desert, and most of the state has experienced drought conditions since around 1999.

In the meantime, while the two sides – agriculture and urban growth – continue to duke it out over water rights, one fact remains: “Man…owes his existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

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Posted in: Travel - Arizona