Anya Wahal
Climate Change
Environmental Justice
Food & Water
Spring 2023

Drought-Stricken, Arizona Farmers Face Bleak Growing Season

By Anya Wahal, Green Commons Award Recipient, SFS ‘23

Drenched in sweat and scorched by the 110°F Arizona heat, I made my way towards Caywood Farms, a fifth-generation farm run by Nancy Caywood. 

Nancy and other farmers have struggled to recoup their businesses from Arizona’s record-setting drought. Farming had been her family’s livelihood since they first moved to the West decades ago. As I sought to understand and amplify her story, she shared her distant hopes for a more water-abundant future and financial struggles – which have inevitably accompanied our state-wide drought.

Cotton, a water-intensive crop, helped Nancy’s family fulfill their ‘American Dream.’ From an environmental perspective, building a business dependent on the crop is at extreme odds with the state’s sustainable development goals. And while Nancy expressed a desire to implement more water conscious practices, she did not have the resources to do so, even on a smaller scale. In the midst of our interview, Nancy gazed forlornly at a patch of life on her fields: cotton, in a midst of cracked, brown, dirt. 

Experiences like those of Nancy have spread like wildfire across Arizona. But despite the overwhelming news coverage of the Colorado River water shortages, the human impact of Arizona’s water policies on its most affected group—farmers—is often missing from the discourse. 

Due to severe drought, farmers are experiencing unprecedented financial hardships and letting their fields lie fallow. In fact, according to Steve Miller, Supervisor for Pinal County, one of the hardest hit counties in the state, 60% of agricultural land could be fallowed because of the Colorado River water shortages. Still, the voices of farmers are consistently being lost amid competing narratives surrounding water in the Southwest. At the same time, farmers suffer from a disconnect between the implementation and intent of water policies. While policymakers may intend for policies to positively impact farmers and ranchers, these same policies, such as those on water taxes and surface water management, have sometimes undermined the interests of those exact communities.

To better understand these challenges, I returned to my home state of Arizona this past summer to film a mini-documentary from farmers’ perspectives on how water shortages are impacting their lives and livelihoods. With the support of the Earth Commons and Mortara Center for International Studies, I spent months interviewing and filming farmers with the goal of understanding and amplifying their stories. What I learned transformed my thinking on what policies might be necessary to tackle environmental crises in Arizona and around the world. 

My conversations changed my view of Arizona’s water challenges in three key ways.

First, conversations among policymakers and farmers surrounding agriculture and development must be reframed to encapsulate a greater understanding of the nuanced perspectives of all stakeholders. Currently, the dialogue orients farmers against developers, and vice versa, reflective of an “us versus them mentality.” Although conversations with farmers did reveal some resentment against unqualified development, opinions tended to be more nuanced in practice. 

The voices of farmers are consistently being lost amid competing narratives surrounding water in the Southwest.

In fact, as one farmer I spoke with put it, “I’m not against development. I’m just against how they’re going about it… [They just want to] build the cheapest house possible.” Focusing on who is angered by development and why they are angry about it sheds crucial light on how to build a more sustainable and inclusive path forward. 

In the West, we often throw around the phrase “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” when discussing water shortages. This phrase encapsulates the conflict: water, because of its scarcity, is too often the source of great tension, but collaboration is still possible. 

Second, the existence of Phoenix and other large cities must be acknowledged to create policies that effectively support sustainable development in desert cities. In response to water shortages, progressive environmentalists in Arizona have often made arguments that a large city like Phoenix should never have existed since Arizona is a desert. However, this point is moot, because Phoenix does exist. Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and a hub for business and development. Accepting that Phoenix and other cities in Arizona will continue to grow is a crucial step in ensuring they do so sustainably. For instance, investing in improved wastewater and groundwater management, engaging in dialogue between other Colorado River basin states and Mexico, and considering the possibility of water augmentation through desalination may be instrumental to policymakers as they craft future water policy.

Third, many reasonable citizens and policymakers are demanding that farmers make their businesses more sustainable. However, demanding this change without providing the necessary support would lead to less-than-ideal outcomes. Such demands can make farmers out to be the villains, when the blame often lies with policymakers as well. 

Such demands can make farmers out to be the villains, when the blame often lies with policymakers as well. 

In a field visit I conducted, one farmer mentioned that she wanted to diversify to more sustainable crops, but simply didn’t have the necessary financial resources or labor. When I asked if government grants existed to make this change, she said that they didn’t, and any help that was offered by nonprofits wasn’t nearly enough to cover the costs. This sentiment was widespread amongst the 25 farmers I spoke with, most of whom were actively considering new ways to conserve water in their businesses. 

If Arizona policymakers aim to maintain agricultural traditions, support farming businesses, and create new development, they must make a more conscious effort to include farmers’ perspectives. Only then might we see policies produce their intended effects and policymakers make reasonable demands of farmers and ranchers disproportionately affected by water shortages.

These lessons I learned from studying my state’s water crisis are not applicable to only Arizona. Just as farmers in the West are poorly treated in the environmental discourse, so too are coal miners in Appalachia and oil field workers in Texas. As an environmental advocate, I too yearn for sweeping environmental policy changes to conserve our country’s precious resources and build resilience strategies in the wake of the climate crisis. But I also know that true progress can only be sustainable if it is inclusive of those left behind. 

Arizona farmers need monetary aid to change their growing practices; sustainability on a larger scale sometimes means supporting existing ways of life. To shift away from conflict and towards genuine progress, we need to create a policy discourse that reflects the interests of all communities affected by environmental crises.

American Southwest
environmental justice
Water Crisis
Water Shortage