Over the last twenty thousand years ancient man─ North America’s first people─ established settlements across the desert Southwest. They were the Yuma, Pima, Papago, Zuni, the Pueblo, the Navajo, and Apache. There are over 570 distinct tribes across the United States. More recently in the last 2000 years one such group, the Hohokam farmed the Gila River Valley. Marcos de Niza, an ambitious Franciscan friar in 1529 boldly claimed these territories for Spain. Arizona was a remote and difficult terrain to travel through. Before 1850 few pioneers had attempted to settle this region, by 1912 Arizona was granted statehood, there were 217,000 hot and thirsty new US citizens.
Water rights were grandfathered in, stakeholders divvied up the resources, in the earliest years water rights were granted in an odd first right of use method, even if the use made no sense. In 1902 at John Wesley Powell’s urging the Bureau of Reclamation was formed in Washington and to be followed in 1980 by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. At present the agencies are struggling to keep up with the fast-moving global atmospheric changes. Even today given how hot tempers can run, to book a face-to-face appointment with an official from the Department of Water Resources you’ll need to state your business and identify who you are before being let into the building.
Then came this new century and with it this relentless twenty-year drought, drought, and more drought. Here we are in the midst of a climate emergency, with it come significant changes in precipitation patterns, hotter and dryer weather, add to all of that a swelling population, and the prospect of untangling this steaming hot mess of water shortages in court, this collision between the water have’s and the have-nots has brought us to the mother of all showdowns.
When you are in climate chaos, where water cutbacks are ordered, and you can’t─ you won’t comply, you’ve got seeds in the ground and your last dollar is at risk, your last shred of hope is hanging by a sunbeam, even with all that, sorry to say trouble is going to come find you.
Until now it has seemed reasonable here in the Gila River Valley to punch an extra well or two, maybe divert some water running in a channel, nobody is going to notice a little runoff, even if it is common knowledge an unauthorized diversion is straight up considered thieving and stealing. Some handful have a legal right to draw a certain amount of water, hardly anyone has an unrestricted right.
Farms and ranches are in a corner. Trouble will soon find the water grabbers, the trouble makers will find they’ve attracted a sheriff and the officer will come and padlock the gates to the irrigation canals shut, power company will cut electricity to the offending well pumps, one way or another if you cannot prove a right to the water you are going to be shutdown. You cut the lock, you hook a generator up to a well pump and a judge will be hold you in contempt, throw you in jail, and send your youngest born off to be educated at a local liberal university.
The Gila turns to the north and continues west where it enters the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The sovereign territory measures 1.8 million acres. It encompasses parts of three different Arizona counties and these sovereign lands as all other tribal lands were established by congressionally ratified treaties and at the time of their signing in 1868, were deemed irrevocable, and eternal. The Supreme Court has found that neither a President nor Congress can terminate these treaties. What comes to mind is the internment of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims by the Chinese. Whatever other awful conduct we might witness here in the United States abrogating a treaty with our sovereign tribes would be viewed by the world as a crime against humanity.
By 1935 the San Carlos Apache had to go to court over a dispute with the Gila River Irrigation District. “Despite the construction of Coolidge Dam and the attempt to use the storage capability of San Carlos Reservoir to satisfy all parties, the flow of the Gila River is nowhere near sufficient to fulfill all the rights adjudicated in the Globe Equity Decree. The Federal Court found that the Apache have the senior most rights that extend from Coolidge Reservoir and then east 140 miles to the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico. Farmers and ranchers’ members of the Gila River Irrigation District were overusing their water allotments leaving the Apache insufficient resources for their homeland. And there’s the rub, this isn’t just codified in law, it is as Al Gore might say, “this is the inconvenient truth.”
Recent action, in 2019, the tribe has been back in Federal Court fighting against with the excessive upriver water users. Water rights are nothing if not enforced.
To understand the problem let’s link the Department of Agriculture’s cotton subsidies to the water shortage. The Federal farm cotton subsidies line the pockets of a select lucky few farmers, the surplus cotton then brings all kinds of dislocation to foreign markets, fuel trade conflicts and cause every kind of economic, environmental and political problems. There are about 8100 cotton farmers in the United States, Arizona accounts for about 1000 producers. The only reason they are growing cotton is because it is subsidized, without this incentive the producers would immediately shutdown, USA grown cotton is not competitive on the global market.
Between 1995 and 2020 the Department of Agriculture disbursed $40 billion to US cotton growers with a significant share of those funds ending up in the pockets of Gila River Valley producers in and around Safford, Arizona. The subsidy among other things incentivizes producers to plant on marginal land, and then grow the subsidized cotton with subsidized water, even in the midst of a megadrought, even though everyone knows that the crop isn’t even destined for domestic markets but instead will be sold to foreign markets. In other words, seven million Arizona citizens are involuntarily having their states water, water that belongs to all the citizens, that piece of the commons is being sucked out from under them by about 1000 producers that grow an unprofitable crop that the producers ship overseas knowing full well there is not a sufficient demand for cotton on the world market, or enough water to meet the needs of a growing state population.
In Arizona the water scarcity problem is severe, it is an emergency, it is threatening the collapse of key sectors of the economy. But agriculture isn’t just powerful, it is invincible, tends to vote to the right of the political spectrum but will vaporize any politician no matter the stripes that dares to untangle this out-of-control program. One point of view has it that to keep a lid on the peace it is better to go along than get in the way of this irrational farm program. Another point of view worries about the chaos mismanaging the water resources could have on the entire project called civilization. Everyone knows this is an incendiary issue, that the rural communities could not just lose their economic base, but they could become so radicalized that the agricultural regions of the state could be virtually ungovernable, that the circumstances could foment a collapse of what we know as regular order, that both the state and nation could be threatened. It really is that dire.
There are no profiles in courage in Arizona. Governor Doug Ducey has nothing to say, all the office holders know better and stay the hell back and let the courts take the heat.
Hay, alfalfa and cotton growers need a good dose of water scarcity regulation. None of the farms would make any kind of sense without the Bureau of Reclamations surrendering cheap to almost free water to the growers. The near free irrevocable access to water has only made matters worse, and not the least of it because the water is revocable, and a day of reckoning is near.
Department of Agriculture could facilitate selling and shipping out cotton farm equipment to more water abundant regions like east to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi for starters. Immigration reform would include increasing the number of farmworkers allowed into the country to handle the new food production.
Plant based meatless meat products like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat are scaling up to meet demand and depend on soy, corn and other crops to manufacture their products. Emerging from research and development is another new industry that is producing real meat in the laboratory─ it’s called lab meat. Competitive production costs are approaching par with conventional meat and within a few years you’ll begin to see beef, pork and salmon products in our grocery stores and restaurants synthesized by this remarkable advanced technology. Salmon and chicken grown in the lab will begin distribution in Northern California in early 2022.
The future is now, and it is arriving just as this megadrought is about to force its reckoning upon the stubborn lucky few water users. Scaling lab meat up in Arizona to meet consumer demand would be the smartest thing a community like Safford, Arizona could do. Add to this the benefit that this type of meat uses 90% less water and 90% less land and you’ve got opportunity running smack dab into feasibility. Remember factory farming livestock risks triggering the release of dangerous pathogens some that can become a threat to all of humanity such as has happened with Swine flu and Covid-19. Lab meat will require no antibiotics and so far, is proving to be one of the safest most efficient methods of production. I know, I know─ but does it taste good? Will consumers eat laboratory meat? So far so good. Most who have sampled Upside Foods based in Emeryville, California describe the product as delicious and indistinguishable from any conventional chicken they’ve tasted. There is no time or water to waste.
In the months ahead, they will scale their production facilities and go from 50,000 lbs. to 500,000 lbs. Fortunately laboratory meat eliminates the need to slaughter animals. Arizona’s cotton addicted farmers could convert fields to grains that laboratory meat uses and then set up Gila River Valley laboratory meat growing facilities to create jobs and opportunities for the state’s citizens. That’s how you respond to a global climate emergency, that’s how we introduce new products, safer, cleaner, more efficient products to a thriving nation of consumers.
There is every sign that we have the technology and know how to fix a broken climate system. Like it or not our coal fired power plants will be shuttered. The day of the internal combustion engine is ending. Natural gas furnaces are going to be replaced with electric powered heat pumps. If you’ve been on the free lunch, subsidy and price support bandwagon it isn’t like we are going to ditch you, we need you, and we can build a better new food production, transportation, and electric power system to meet the challenges we face in this exciting new century with the farmers and ranchers cooperation.
Sanford, Arizona citizens need our help, change is never easy, even when it is necessary. Witness the revolution taking place in transportation sector. Just three new automobile companies—Tesla, Rivian and Lucid are worth more than all the other auto manufacturers in the world combined. We’re at a critical tipping point, revamping our food system, reallocating water resources, all of these changes are part of our efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and to build a more resilient energy and food system. Time to stop building walls and it is time to start building a technological bridge to this new century.