It’s a classic Italian-American meal: a crispy Caesar salad with a plate of marinara pasta.
You’ll find it in restaurants across the country, but depending on the time of year, many ingredients come from just one region. Yuma, Arizona, along with California’s Imperial Valley, produces more than 90 percent of the country’s winter leafy greens and many of its vegetables. Arizona is also a major grower of wheat, which the state exports to Italy for pasta making.
Historically, this made a lot of sense. The region has fertile soil and a warm climate for growing food all year round, even when the rest of the land is frozen.
There’s just one problem: The water farmers use to grow these crops comes from the Colorado River, and the Colorado River is drying up.
The iconic river is in its 23rd year of drought, according to the Bureau of Reclamation and the two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have sunk to historic lows, leading to a series of water restrictions. Under climate change, drought worsen the coming years.
That means residents in the West may have less water for lawns and long showers, but it’s a much bigger problem for agriculture because farmers use about three-quarters of all the water people get from rivers. Some farmers have already had to limit their water supplies and much more severe cuts are coming.
Which brings us to this somewhat depressing point: When farmers use less water, they tend to produce less food. And that could drive food prices up, even more than… they already have. Winter vegetables, such as lettuce and broccoli, can take a big hit, as can Arizona’s delectable wheat. Even more worryingly, the shrinking Colorado River is just one of many climate-related disasters that threaten the supply and affordability of food.
Historic water outages are already affecting farmers
Winding 1450 miles from northern Colorado to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American West. It’s almost watering 40 million people in seven states, Mexico and more than two dozen tribes, and it irrigates millions of acres from country.
The river is governed by a complex set of policies — collectively known as the Law of the River — that determine how much water each state or tribe receives, and which it will lose water first when the government imposes restrictions. (Normally, groups that have been using the water for a longer period of time have higher priority water rights, including indigenous tribes.)
Last August, the federal government declared a water shortage on the river for the first time, in response to projections that Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, would be at just 34 percent of its capacity by the end of 2020. The declaration, known as a Tier 1 deficit, triggered budget cuts that impacted Central Arizona, which has low-priority rights.
Farmers in Pinal County, Arizona, who grow alfalfa, wheat and other crops have suffered the most, says Paul Brierley, a former farmer who now directs the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona. “They had to vomit” [stop planting] about 40 percent of their acreage because they lost all their water in the Colorado River,” he said.
A wilting alfalfa crop could rattle the local dairy industry, Brierley said. Dairy farmers use the flowering plant to feed cows, and when water restrictions come into effect, alfalfa is one of the first crops they stop planting.
The Tier 1 deficit alone could push the prices of milk, yogurt and other products up, at least in Arizona. But as of this summer, the river has already passed a Tier 1 deficit and states are facing additional budget cuts. The consequences can go much further.
Less water can mean more expensive food
This summer, the water level in Lake Mead hit a record low of just 1042 feet above sea level (it was round) 1200 feet above sea level in 2000). The reservoir is now a little over a quarter full. If it drops much lower, the reservoir could reach “dead pool” status, meaning water can’t flow downstream through the Hoover Dam, much less generate electricity.
“Without action, we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on this critical resource,” Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said during a phone call with reporters earlier this week.
During the call, Touton declared the first-ever Tier 2 deficit, leading to additional budget cuts affecting Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Her announcement followed a June Senate hearing in which she advised officials in the seven states that use water from the Colorado River to come up with a plan to add an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet from their stock, on top of the Tier 2 cuts. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to fill an acre with one foot of water.)
That doesn’t bode well for farmers and those of us who buy their produce. While previous budget cuts have caused some disruption in Central Arizona, the impact of a 2-4 million acre-foot reduction — or up to 25 percent of what the river basin states are currently using – will be more widespread. Withholding that water is likely to affect farms in Yuma, Southern California’s Imperial Valley, and other food production epicenters.
“The [food] system can adapt, but 2-4 million is a real game changer,” said George Frisvold, an agricultural economist at the University of Arizona. “If it comes to the point where people actually have to cut back on vegetable production, you will get price increases.”
The first crops to be hit — other than alfalfa and other animal feed — will likely be products that farmers plant annually (or more frequently), such as lettuce, broccoli and tomatoes. These are short term investments and farmers can decide if they want to plant them on an annual basis.
Many fruits, nuts and other tree crops, on the other hand, are long-term bets that can take years to bear fruit and are usually more valuable. For example, farmers will not wilt almond trees if they can avoid it.
“When water isn’t available, farmers have to make decisions about what they can and cannot plant,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the nonprofit California Farm Water Coalition.
Consider a farmer who processes tomatoes in California for food such as ketchup or marinara, Wade said. If there is not enough water for the growing season, the farmer may not even put the plants in the ground. “Then supply is limited to the cannery, which results in prices rising over time,” Wade said. “That makes the products that consumers buy in the store more expensive.”
Water savings could also hurt wheat production in Arizona, said Jeffrey Silvertooth, a plant and soil scientist at the University of Arizona. The region is a major supplier of durum wheat to Italian pasta companies, he said.
If a farmer has 20 percent less water, they may choose to leave the soil fallow over the winter instead of planting wheat, Brierley said. “That is a rational decision that would have consequences for the supply of wheat. And it is not a good time to produce less wheat,” he added, nodding at the war in Ukraine. one of the world’s largest wheat producerswhich has already restricted the supply of the grain.
Should you be concerned?
The good news is that the drought-related supply squeeze isn’t likely to translate into huge price increases on its own, Frisvold said. A head of lettuce will not double in price overnight. A box of dried pasta probably won’t bankrupt you.
Only part of the retail price of food is linked to the cost of actually growing it, and thus to its supply; the rest has to do with things like marketing and transportation.
And while much food does depend on the Colorado River, elsewhere, such as in Iowa, there are farms that can meet the demand. When the price of certain crops rises, farmers in other regions start planting them, said Frank Ward, an agricultural economist at New Mexico State University.
So in a sense, our food system is resilient.
What’s worrying, though, is that droughts along the Colorado River aren’t the only disaster putting pressure on our food supply. Earlier this summer, an extreme heat wave in the Midwest caused: corn to wilt and cattle to die. Meanwhile, another heat wave in India strangled the supply of wheat. That’s on top of the supply chain issues associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” Frisvold said.
Together, these threats – many of which are exacerbated by climate change and accelerating – could destabilize global food supplies and drive prices up. They are part of the reason you pay 13 percent more for groceries this summer, compared to last year.
Towards a more stable (and affordable) food supply
If the water runs out, a solution is to simply use less of it. Farmers can switch to crops that aren’t as thirsty — from pecans to grapes, for example — or use technologies to water their crops more accurately.
More eco-friendly farming styles can also help farms survive extreme droughts. For example, planting ground covers helps retain moisture in the soil, and switching to an agroforestry-style farm, where trees are integrated into the landscape, can provide valuable shade.
These changes come at a cost, but the federal government is willing to help with at least some of them. The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed earlier this week, includes nearly $20 billion for agricultural land conservation and $4 billion for drought relief in the West. Federal drought spending could help farmers offset water savings and help them develop more efficient farms, Brierley said.
Ultimately, however, the US will have to do much more to ensure a stable and affordable food supply. Drought is a problem, yes, but it is linked to the much bigger problem of climate change. Without rapidly reducing CO2 emissions, responding to the shrinking Colorado River is only a temporary solution.