Farmers in central Arizona are working together to protect a precious resource that flows through their land. The Verde River supplies every drop of water they use for irrigation, and everything else in their lives. As the drought swallows up lakes and rivers across the West, Verde Valley farmers are embracing new and old technology to ensure their water supply doesn’t dry up. Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo reports.
The Hausers are a farming family. They’ve been harvesting and selling pumpkins, alfalfa, and sweet corn for generations. The youngest member in this long line of farmers is 26-year-old Zach.
“My great, great, great grandparents started in Iowa, eventually moved to Phoenix," says Hauser. "My dad and grandfather farmed this, and then I just kind of followed in their footsteps.”
Hauser runs one of the largest farms in central Arizona. His family has always practiced flood irrigation, using water from the Verde River. It’s a classic way to farm, but it loses a lot of water to evaporation.
"You can see on the top of the field there that aluminum pipe. You just open one of the little gates on the pipeline, and, you know, water just flows out of the pipe directly on top of the ground," says Hauser.
To conserve water, Hauser is going underground with a drip irrigation system.
“We’ve heard some figures of 30 to 50 percent water savings. We’ll have to wait to see how that actually turns out. But we’re going to save some water for sure,” says Hauser.
Drip-irrigation is not a new farming technique. Advanced systems have been around for about 100 years. But, today’s technology is expensive. It would cost Hauser around $2 million to install a drip system on his 600 acres. The only reason he can afford the upgrade on nine of those acres is because of a grant aimed at increasing flows in the Verde River.
“It is definitely a threatened river," says Kim Schonek, water transactions director with the Nature Conservancy. "Right now we have spots on the river that are nearly dry as it is today.”
The Nature Conservancy received the grant as part of last year’s federal Farm Bill, and put some of the money toward Hauser’s irrigation system. His farm is the conservancy’s test site to see how much water he can put back in the Verde.
"This particular project is our first on-farm project, where we work directly with the farmer on changing the operations of their water in the field," says Schonek. "We probably have about 2,000 people who rely on water for their irrigation."
It’s Frank Geminden’s job to makes sure they get it.
"I’m ditch boss. And I’m responsible for keeping the water going down the ditch," says Geminden.
Geminden is one of seven ditch bosses in the Verde Valley. He’s also a farmer. His pecan trees and blackberry bushes are a quick golf cart ride from the irrigation ditch he manages.
“There are a lot of people. There’s 640 acres on this ditch," Geminden says. "Over half of it as where the Hausers are farming it. And they have to have their water.”
At the ditch, Geminden opens a wooden box nailed to a post. Inside is a set of rules people must follow when they want to irrigate.
“This is our sheet that we sign up on for approximate time that you’re going to need the water," says Geminden. "This is a one-acre lot and it’s four hours. Lee’s got five or six acres in there and he does it in 20. You try and keep the order so people have a little bit better idea of when they’re going to get the water.”
Geminden also uses a smartphone to check automated sensors and water levels in the ditch.
“And it shows that we’ve got 1.45 feet of water at that gate. And that tells me it’s running the way it ought to be,” Geminden says.
Demand and drought usually decide the way water ought to be in the West. But farmers in the Verde Valley hope their conservation efforts will bring some of that control back to the community.