Extension Collaboration to Help Farmers, Ranchers Save Water

April 5, 2023

The state Water Irrigation Efficiency Program, which is administered by Extension, offers grants of up to $1 million per grower to help convert from flood irrigation to drip or sprinkler systems that cut water use by 20 percent or more.

Pinal County irrigation ditch

Many farms in Pinal County are equipped with flood irrigation systems that are now empty, because of cuts in Colorado River water allocations.

Brad Poole, Cooperative Extension

With a long-dreaded water crisis hitting some Arizona farmers hard, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and the state are collaborating to prevent billions of gallons of water from drifting away on the wind. 

The state’s Water Irrigation Efficiency Program, administered by Extension, will help farmers and ranchers pay for a switch from flood irrigation to drip or sprinkler systems. The $30 million effort will reduce water loss from evaporation – which happens to varying degrees in every part of Arizona. 

We’ve always used water more efficiently than other states, and we have to continue to do that. If we don’t, our way of life is unsustainable,” said Ethan Orr, Extension’s Agriculture and Natural Resources director. 

Farmers or ranchers who are accepted into the program will get $1,500 per acre up to $1 million per farm to help pay for approved irrigation systems and must show a projected water savings of at least 20 percent. Data from the first 12 applications predict savings of almost 7,400 acre-feet of water, or more than 2.4 billion gallons, over the three years of the pilot program. 

Linear sprinkler system

Sprinkler irrigation systems like this pivot system in Yuma use less water than traditional flood irrigation.

Gene Alexander, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

The grant will help Pinal County dairy rancher Brian Blevins, 47, stay ahead of the ever-present threat of water shortage after his access to Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project was slashed to zero this year, he said. 

Blevins has about 10,000 dairy cattle. He now grows about 2,500 acres of alfalfa, corn, oats, cotton, and occasionally other grains, most of it feed. The state grant, which will cover about $562,000 of the $900,000 cost to convert 375 acres later this year, is one piece in a mosaic of measures Belvins is using to deal with water scarcity, he said.

“I don’t think there is any one solution to all of our problems. I think you have to be willing to mix and match and take advantage of programs like crop insurance and these state grants. You have to do all these things, because we don’t know what the future holds,” Blevins said. 

He uses groundwater from Maricopa-Stanfield and Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage districts. Most Pinal County farms are designed for the water pressure of the CAP system, which can easily push water across fields. Without that pressure, Blevins system of ditches and gates can't get enough water to crops. The situation forced him to fallow 800 acres, he said. 

Despite a good year for rainfall, Blevins assumes the water situation will always be tough on growers, and this conversion will help maintain long-term viability, he said.

“We just assume that it’s kind of always going to be the same way. Water is always going to be short. It’s always going to be in demand, and we’re always going to have to be as efficient as we can with it,” Blevins said.  

The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $350 billion pool of federal funds approved in 2021 to help the nation recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. The $30 million irrigation program is part of Arizona’s $4 billion portion, which was allocated in 2022 under former Gov. Doug Ducey. It has been a bipartisan effort led in the Legislature by state Rep. Timothy M. Dunn (R) of Yuma. 

We in agriculture do the best we can,” said Dunn, who grows cotton and seed crops and leases land to a lettuce grower. Water is an input cost, so we don’t want to waste any water. 

The program will help preserve water not just in central and southern Arizona, where many growers pump groundwater. It will also save along the mainstem of the Colorado River, keeping water in Lake Mead, where electricity production is threatened by the dropping water level. 

Another round of funding is making its way through the Legislature. If it is included in the fiscal 2024 budget currently under negotiation, another $30 million would be available, Dunn said. 

Applicants are spread across the state and grow mostly wheat, alfalfa, and leafy greens. Most are in Pinal County, where CAP cuts have hit hardest, and Yuma County, Arizona’s field crop epicenter. Others are in Maricopa, Mohave, and Cochise counties. 

The impact can spread far beyond farming. In the Verde Valley, home to about 70,000 people, economic development managers are trying to keep every drop of water they can in the river – the lifeblood of the area, Orr said. 

They’re saying, ‘Look, if this river goes away, we become just another pretty place like everywhere else in Arizona, so we, as a valley, are committed to preserving this river,” Orr said. 

In addition to the irrigation conversions, the program funds $1 million in research and demonstration. Extension researchers will examine water efficiency, soil health, pest management, and crop production under the new irrigation systems, some of which could be installed by fall. Applicants can use any approved vendor for irrigation systems, but only systems backed by research showing water efficiency are allowed. 

The irrigation program is among a broad array of Extension work buffering Arizona from a water threat that has loomed for decades. The Water Resources Research Center offers a spectrum of information and analysis to inform the academic community, government, and the public. 

The Water Irrigation Efficiency Program and others like it are a vital part of preserving Arizona’s long history and deep heritage in agriculture, Orr said. 

“This is absolutely an existential threat to our state, not only to the ag industry, but to our cities as well. The reality is that because of programs like this, we use less water in Arizona than we did in 1962, even though we have three times the population. Without this, some of these farmers would probably go out of business.”  

Interested farmers or ranchers can get more information or apply here. To read the bill authorizing the Water Irrigation Efficiency Program, click here.