Lawmakers funded a program that incentivizes Arizona farmers to reduce unsustainable irrigation practices with a $15.2 million general fund appropriation in the state budget.
HB2026, sponsored by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, would have allocated $30 million from the state’s general fund for fiscal year 2023-2024 to the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Fund. The budget appropriated $15.2 million for the fund – a reduction from the program’s $30 million budget last fiscal year, which was funded in part by the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
“Over the session we’ve had tremendous support for the concept of adding this $15 million to the program we started last year,” Dunn said. Both sides of the aisle have been tremendously supportive.”
The bill unanimously passed the House in February and passed the Senate Appropriations Committee 8-2 in late March with Sens. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, and Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, voting against the bill.
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension administers funds for the program as allowed by the federal Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created a system of cooperative extension and community education services with land-grant colleges and state universities. The UofA affiliate conducts research on farmers’ agricultural practices and provides grants for those who update their irrigation systems to be more sustainable.
Ethan Orr, the UofA Extension associate director of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said that the irrigation efficiency fund is “one of the best public investments” for the future of water in Arizona.
Applicants for the program must demonstrate an improvement in water efficiency of 20% or more to qualify for the $1,500 per-acre grant disbursed by the Cooperative Extension. UofA researchers measure the changes in efficiency and record data relating to the switch to sustainable irrigation.
“Each application is taken very seriously, and we have a robust monitoring system,” Orr said.
Since the start of the program, the irrigation efficiency fund has led to the transitioning of more than 10,000 acres of farmland from flood irrigation – a more wasteful method of watering crops – to more efficient irrigation types like drip systems. While this may increase the possibility for the “heat island effect” and dust issues, the Cooperative Extension is careful to mitigate the risks of converting irrigation to more sustainable systems, according to Orr.
“We have done (sustainable irrigation) for 20 years, but the whole concept was, with the water conversation last year, encouraging the folks who don’t necessarily have the economic advantage or necessity to convert over from ‘floods’ to ‘drip’ to do so,” Dunn said.
The UofA Cooperative Extension has allocated more than $11 million for on-farm irrigation projects, which, according to Orr, will save 45,318 acre-feet of water annually – more than 15 times the amount of water in Tempe Town Lake. Farmers in the program themselves have also invested more than $7 million total into efficiency projects when the system cost is above the $1,500 per-acre grant.
The goal of the program is to show farmers that investing in long-term sustainable irrigation systems is more economical, not to force them to switch over all their systems overnight, according to Dunn.
“In some parts of the state, (farmers) have enough water to farm their crops. So, this (program) allows them to switch over and to see that their crops will do better and how much water they can save and help the aquifer – we’re trying to make it a win-win,” Dunn said.
According to WorldAtlas, while California’s Salinas Valley is the “salad bowl of the world,” Yuma is the “winter salad bowl of the U.S.,” producing 90% of the nation’s winter leafy greens and vegetables. The on-farm irrigation efficiency fund distributes grants to farms located in Yuma County, but also aims to spread the program across the state.
“Yuma is super-efficient, whereas in other parts of the state, farmers are using six or seven acre-feet of water for a crop,” Dunn said. “This is showing the rest of the state and other regions and other farmers next door how they can monetize or how they can convert and save water.”
It is because of these types of programs that Arizona uses less water now than it did six decades ago, Orr said.
He said that the on-farm irrigation efficiency fund is one of the methods by which we can “protect cities from future water cuts for almost 6 million people in the Arizona Sun Corridor.”