On a hot November day in Yuma, Arizona, the desert sun hits a sea of ​​low green fields. Here, near the banks of the Colorado River, Matt McGuire walks through an expanse of vegetables that stretches across the desert landscape.

“You find it on the shelf in the grocery store and it’s a leafy green,” he said, “it probably comes from here. Because about 80-85% of winter vegetables come from here. of this region.

McGuire is the agricultural director of JV Smith Companies, which grows products in Arizona, California, Colorado and Mexico.

The rows that grow these vegetables are striking for their perfection. Lettuce grows in a corduroy pattern of precisely cut stripes, and the dirt that holds their roots is chiseled into angles that you can measure with a protractor. These laser-leveled fields help growers irrigate more efficiently, removing slopes and bumps to ensure water doesn’t run off the roots.

Along with space age developments that have helped producers reduce their dependence on human labor and save money without sacrificing production, these precisely designed fields are just an innovation in the name of efficiency.

As the Colorado River narrows, water cuts have already occurred for some farms. Matt McGuire, agricultural director of JV Smith Companies, is adjusting his fields to withstand a future with limited supply. “Hope and pray for more rain, more snow,” McGuire said. “But we are trying to prepare for less water.”

Alex Hager / KUNC

“This system shows us so far,” McGuire said. “When we do, it uses half the water that we use for the sprinklers. It’s just a steady progression to try to use less water.

They try to consume less, in part because one day they may be given less. Agriculture uses about 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. Thanks to decades of drought brought on by climate change, declining supplies to the river have forced mandatory reductions for some users. The first with reduced water supplies will be farms in central Arizona, a short drive from Yuma.

Climatologists say warmer, drier weather is on the way, lowering reservoir levels and creating a need for extensive reductions. McGuire’s farm is near the bottom of the discount list, but the technology used here is emblematic of the adaptations farmers in the area are making to withstand a future with limited supply.

“Hope and pray for more rain, more snow,” McGuire said. “But we are trying to prepare for less water.”

Does saving water on a farm help the pond?

Farms around the world have a long history of adopting new technologies to improve their performance, which currently means using less water.

“I have farmers today who say, well, we’re doing everything as well as we can,” said Paul Brierley, executive director of the Yuma Center for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona. “I always say, let’s look 50 years from now and look back and we will laugh at those pictures just as much as we laugh at pictures from 50 years ago.”

He says the list of innovations includes mobile apps, drones, satellites, and the use of complex weather data – all to help measure and distribute water.

“This is something that a lot of money has been invested in, from many sources, in a proactive manner,” Brierley said. “It’s not because the government said you had less water this year. This is because the industry wanted to know, how can we best determine what is the right amount of water? “

yuma lettuce farm

Romaine lettuce grows in neat rows on a farm in Yuma, Arizona. About 80% of the country’s winter vegetables come from the region.

Alex Hager / KUNC

New technologies on farms in the southwest often mean less water is applied to crops, but there’s a catch: it doesn’t always mean water is being saved.

A recent report by a multinational team of researchers suggests that many modern irrigation systems “worsen water scarcity” in the long run. The idea that technologies like drip irrigation can save water persists, the article explains, contrary to scientific evidence.

Although drip irrigation differs from the methods used in the fields of JV Smith Companies’ farms in Yuma, it has been adopted on other farms in the region and is considered by many to be a water-saving technique. .

Frank Ward, co-author of the report and water policy expert in the Department of Agricultural Economics at New Mexico State University, said “Farmers are more interested in income from water. than by conserving water ”.

“They are more interested in the part of the applied water that reaches the root zone,” he said. “So conservation is less of a problem for the typical farmer than you might think. “

The report specifically addresses the myths surrounding the effectiveness of drip irrigation. Drip irrigation, where water is pushed out of small holes in a tube or pipe laid on the ground, is a popular method of watering crops that reduces runoff and evaporation by allowing the water to flow gradually over the area near the roots of the plants.

Ward explained that the technique leads to higher yields and more profits for producers, but reduces the amount of water returned to the underground aquifer for later use.

“On an individual farm scale,” he said, “it might seem like it saves water because you apply a lot less. But research seems to show that switching to drip irrigation does not conserve water, but increases farm incomes. “

colorado river in yuma

Agriculture uses about 80% of the water from the Colorado River, which flows through Yuma, Arizona. Thanks to decades of drought brought on by climate change, dwindling supplies to the river have forced mandatory cuts for some users, starting with Arizona farmers.

Alex Hager / KUNC

While technology has helped farmers with their margins, research suggests that existing innovations may not be a silver bullet to the larger basin’s water struggles. As the road ahead appears unlikely to provide the rain and snow that would ease drought pressure, farmers and the agricultural industry as a whole could have a changing role in the region.

“You are going to see it rise [water] price, probably reduced use and more effort to conserve water, ”Ward said. “A farmer would rather find a way to keep a little bit so that he can keep this farm, not lose it, than to be kicked out of business and have to go for something else.

As the supply decreases and prices increase, so does the attractiveness of selling water rather than using it.

“Being able to rent or sell water over the course of a year for a low price to a town and keep its water okay could be a good way to keep the farm income going,” Ward said.