With diminishing water, privileging urban growth over farming in Arizona

If water supplies are dwindling, should cities or farmers get more of the water? One writer suggests Arizona has made a clear choice for cities:

The shift away from irrigated agriculture in Arizona hasn’t come without a fight. By some measures, farmers are still winning. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, more than two-thirds of Arizona’s water is still used to irrigate fields, down from a peak of 90 percent last century.

Decades ago, state officials in Arizona begin to plan for a future without water—and that meant sacrificing agriculture for future urban growth. A massive civil engineering project in the 1960s diverted part of the Colorado River to feed Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities could not exist in their current state without this unnatural influx of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Now there’s tension across the region, as the realities of climate change and extreme weather catch up with the business-as-usual agricultural bedrock that laid the foundation for the economy here.

Hopefully, future dispatches in this series about water and drought in the Southwest will begin to address the normative questions: what is the proper ratio of water for cities and farmers? Is it necessarily bad if farmers can’t produce as much in Arizona and California (could more be produced elsewhere, do farmers need to shift to new crops, etc.)? Both farming and urban growth have changed the natural water patterns in the region but does one have a stronger claim to the water in the long run?

What to do when development projects, such as HSR, encounter opposition from residents

This is a common story: a developer, community, or a set of politicians put forth plans for a new development. Some residents or citizens complain that the project will negatively affect them. What is to be done to balance out their concerns versus the plans that have been made? How do we balance the rights of the individual versus the needs of the community?

This is taking place currently in California as state officials continue to move forward with plans for high-speed rail (HSR). According to The Infrastructurist, there are several fronts for complaints: one community suggests the high-speed rail will alter the character of their community and farmers are unhappy that some of their land will split by the tracks.

Within this debate, several themes emerge:

1. A longer and/or bigger view helps provide perspective. In the California case, the start of HSR in the Central Valley looks like a boondoggle because it doesn’t yet connect the largest cities in the state. But it is the start of a network that will expand and eventually provide 2.5 hour travel from San Francisco to LA.

1a. This might help: show that the funding for the later stages in the project, where the Central Valley start is connected at both ends to larger cities, is guaranteed. Otherwise, there might be some worry that this first part will get built and the later funding will dry up or disappear.

2. The time for debate about whether HSR rail is good or appropriate for California is over – it is going forward, particularly since there are Federal dollars committed to this. Yes, these farmers and communities may be affected but they are not going to be able to stop the whole project (unless, perhaps, they get a whole lot more people on their side).

3. The key for those promoting HSR is that they need to continue to focus on the benefits that will come. Some of this is through city revitalization as the HSR serves as a new economic engine. More broadly, it will benefit the state in terms of reducing traffic, provide a quicker form of transportation that flying, and be greener. Yes, people will complain that these are just guesses but then the promoters need to follow through and ensure that HSR actually does benefit the state.

4. Change is not easy. Even if all Californians agreed that HSR was good and it should be pursued, there are always issues regarding making it happen. This is a long-term project that will affect a number of people. The hope is that in the end, it will lead to more good than harm.

Farming back on the upswing in Massachusetts

Farming is not a common occupation in the United States today. According to these figures from the EPA, less than 1% of Americans claim farming as an occupation and about 2% of people live on farms.

Yet the Boston Globe reports that farming is on the upswing in Massachusetts. According to the figures:

From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in Massachusetts jumped by about 27 percent to 7,691, according to the US Department of Agriculture census. That’s a reversal from the previous five years, when there was a 20 percent drop in the number of farms and, presumably, farmers, many of whom sold land to developers.

But the start-up farms are smaller than the family enterprises of the past. The average farm in Massachusetts, 85 acres in 2002, was 67 acres five years later.

American society experienced such a shift away from agriculture from the late 1800s to today that I wonder if this is part of a shift toward a slightly more balanced world between agriculture and other sectors of society. There are plenty of books and pundits talking about how we are disconnected from the land and our food – perhaps a new generation is listening (and the article does make it sound like many of the new farmers are younger) and charting a new course.

(Even after an upswing, the number of farms in Massachusetts is still small. A lot more people would need to go into agriculture to become a movement.)