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From laser-leveled fields to drip irrigation, farms stretch water they have

With agriculture using a large share of Arizona's water, a state program encourages farmers to adopt water-saving practices and technologies such as laser-leveling fields. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Brittni Thomason)

PHOENIX -- Ronald Rayner has been fascinated with water since he was a boy on his father's farm in Goodyear. Now a partner on the family farm, A Tumbling-T Ranches, he has found a way to conserve water and double production since 1980.

Rayner does this by planting cotton over harvested wheat and barley plants, instead of clearing and plowing fields beforehand. This technique, called double-cropping, prevents soil erosion and helps trap moisture by creating a natural mulch.

"We use the same amount of water today that we did (since 1980) even though our efficiency has increased substantially," he said.

Water is a big part of a farm's budget, and Rayner said farmers have a bottom-line reason to be efficient.

"You're growing a crop, you have to make the commitment right up front," he said. "You have to give it all the water that it needs - not any more than that - because it costs you money."

With agriculture accounting for about two-thirds of the water used in Arizona, a state program encourages farmers to adopt water-saving practices and technologies. Through the Best Management Practices program, farmers receive incentives if they follow suggestions from the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Jeff Tannler, the agency's director of Active Management Areas, said the state allocates farms certain amounts of water rights, but farmers are allowed to use as much as they need if they participate in Best Management Practices. The goal: ensuring that 80 percent of the water applied to crops is absorbed and not wasted.

Recommendations from state officials can include lining irrigation ditches with concrete, laser-leveling fields, rotating crops, using drip irrigation, using sprinklers, reusing water not absorbed by the soil, measuring flow rates, analyzing soil and water and scheduling irrigation when crops need it rather than at set intervals.

Tannler said farms have made better use of their water since 1980 and that in some areas irrigation use is 90 percent efficient.

"A lot of farms have implemented a lot of these measures as time went on just because it made economic sense," he said.

In addition, the state offers farmers tax credits worth up to 75 percent of the cost of purchasing or installing water-conservation systems.

Rick Sellers, owner of Waymon Farms in Yuma, a participant in the Best Management Practices program, uses sprinklers on his lettuce farm in the winter. He said he is very precise with how he operates his farm, from laser-leveling his field to cutting rows precisely 42 inches apart.

"We don't waste anything here," he said. "The last thing we want to do is waste a resource such as water."

Sellers said he is considering using drip irrigation as his and other farms find ways to become even more precise and efficient with their water use, but he said those changes carry costs that will be passed on to the consumer.

"It's going to be a costly journey, and hopefully the public will be prepared for it," he said.

Glenn Schaible, an agricultural economist in the Conservation and Environment Branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Resource and Rural Economics Division, said that while determining the exact efficiency rate is difficult, Arizona ranks high among the Western states when it comes to using efficient irrigation.

He said 75 percent of all gravity irrigation systems in Arizona use efficient systems such as lining irrigation ditches or laser leveling fields to the exact angle needed for water flow. Overall, only 35 percent of gravity irrigation systems in the West are efficient, he said.

"Their gravity systems in Arizona are heavily oriented towards using the more efficient gravity systems," he said.

He said there's room for improvement in the use of efficient sprinkler and drip irrigation systems, with only 57 percent of farms in Arizona using systems considered effective. He said continuing to find ways to conserve water is key to the future of agriculture in the West.

"The more sophisticated they get in terms of managing the water efficiently once they get it on the farm, that is going to keep things profitable and make irrigated water agriculture profitable for much of the West," he said.

Sellers, the Yuma farmer, said that ultimately people are going to have to decide if they want their vegetables coming from the U.S. or from another country as drought persists in the West.

"America's food comes from here," he said. "It's important that I stay in business and not have to scale back because of water, because of the drought. I provide a service and that is feeding America."

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