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Farmers, Brewers, and Conservationists Partner to Keep a River Flowing

April 3, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
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Businessman and river enthusiast Chip Norton aims to create a market for barley in the Verde Valley of central Arizona in order to supply local breweries with malt and to keep more flow in the Verde River. Photo: Sandra Postel

The fact that a pint of beer requires a whopping 37 gallons (140 liters) of water to produce can turn a favorite beverage into a guilty pleasure.

But what if, instead, each hoppy sip helped add flow to a depleted river?

If all goes according to plan that will soon happen in Arizona’s Verde River, a flowing gem in the Colorado River Basin and a lifeline for fish, birds and wildlife in the American Southwest. But like many western rivers, the Verde flows low, and in some stretches not at all, during the hot summer months, when farmers divert water to irrigate crops.

And that gave Chip Norton, a retired businessman and river enthusiast, an idea: switch a portion of the valley’s farmland from crops like corn that are thirstiest in summer to barley, which grows earlier in the year and so requires much less water when the river is stressed. Then use the barley to make malt, a key ingredient of beer, and sell it to local craft brewers. In this way the Verde gets more summertime flow, farmers get access to local markets, and breweries get homegrown, high-quality malt for their product.

It’s a creative response to a conundrum conservationists like Kim Schonek, who manages the Verde River program for the Nature Conservancy of Arizona, face time and again: “How do you do something for the local community that’s good for the river,” she asks, “but not ‘buy-and-dry’?”

Schonek is referring to the practice of purchasing irrigated farmland to obtain the associated water rights. With “buy and dry,” the river gets more water, but the agricultural land often dries up, costing the local economy jobs and revenue.

Through Norton and Schonek’s crop-switching plan, healthier rivers have a chance to flow alongside prosperous farms, creating local jobs rather than sacrificing them.

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Kim Schonek with the Nature Conservancy of Arizona works with farmers to modernize irrigation systems so as to sustain the rivers and streams of the Verde Valley, including West Clear Creek, a tributary to the Verde River. Photo: Sandra Postel

In mid-February, Schonek and Norton took us to a new field of barley that was already greening up the Verde Valley. The young grasses stood several inches tall. Last year this acreage had been planted in feed corn, which consumed 3.5 acre-feet of water per acre during May to July. (An acre-foot is the volume that results from spreading water one foot deep over an acre of land, or roughly 326,000 gallons.) Corn grown in the valley needs the most water in June, “when the river has the least available,” Norton said.

While the barley requires about 3 acre-feet of water per acre, not much less than the corn, much of that water comes from the moisture stored in the soil after winter rains. Less than half comes from irrigation. And since it’s a cooler-season crop, the barley will be harvested in June, before the Verde’s flow drops to its summer lows.

If just one-tenth of the valley’s 6,000 acres of cropland could be converted to barley, summertime irrigation demand would drop by nearly 200 million gallons, keeping critical flow in the river when it’s needed most.

Zach Hauser, a farmer in his mid-twenties who helps run Hauser and Hauser Farms, is committed to developing solutions to make his farming more efficient and that benefit the river. Zach and his father Kevin are shifting 144 acres into barley, and planting 35 acres in carrots, another crop that’s harvested in June. To cut his demand for irrigation water even further, Hauser is putting 70 acres, including his carrots, under drip irrigation this year, which will bring his total under drip to 81 acres. Instead of flooding those fields, he will deliver just the volume of water the crops need through a highly efficient, moveable drip system.

Meanwhile, Norton aims to build a malt house in the town of Camp Verde through a benefit corporation called Sinagua Malt, named after a prehistoric people who thrived in the region from 500 A.D.-1300 A.D. The malt house will give farmers like Hauser a local outlet for their barley that generates profits similar to other commodity crops.

The plan is for Sinagua to purchase the raw barley, process it into malt, and then sell it to local craft brewers. Arizona Wilderness, a craft brewery in Gilbert, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of Phoenix, has already agreed to purchase malt from Sinagua. As a benefit corporation, Sinagua will dedicate profits to river conservation.

The shift to new cropping patterns and the installation of drip irrigation continues a transformation to smarter water use in the Verde Valley that began several years ago when the Conservancy partnered with local irrigators to install automated head-gates on ditch systems. The modernized infrastructure enables irrigators to take just the water they need and leave the rest for the river. (Watch a video on these efforts.)

Today the Verde’s summertime flow is about twice what it was before.

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Zach Hauser is converting fields from flood to drip irrigation to conserve water for the Verde River. Hauser’s new machinery helps move the drip lines to irrigate his vegetables. Photo: Sandra Postel

Change the Course, the national water restoration initiative we co-created, has partnered with The Nature Conservancy of Arizona and other conservation groups in the Verde Valley to contribute funding from corporations eager to balance their own water footprints by restoring flows to rivers in need, like the Verde. Such corporate support, along with a grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped Hauser purchase his drip irrigation equipment, and has helped Schonek improve infrastructure throughout the valley. Coca-Cola, Cox, Disney and Waste Management are among the companies that have committed to support restoration projects in the Verde that maximize the benefits that come from meeting the water needs of rivers, communities, and farms.

In a similar way, Change the Course is partnering with the Tucson-based Arizona Land and Water Trust to help shift farmland along southern Arizona’s San Pedro River from thirsty cotton to drought-tolerant native grasses for cattle to graze. Like the Verde, the San Pedro provides critical habitat for migratory birds and wildlife, but shrinks to a trickle from heavy groundwater pumping that depletes its flow during the drier months. As in the Verde, switching to a different crop can benefit the river while keeping agricultural land in production. (Read about a rancher helping to restore the San Pedro.)

The potential for crop switching to benefit rivers and local economies in water-stressed regions like the western United States has barely been tapped. As projects in the Verde and San Pedro show, it often takes creative partnerships among farmers, businesses, agencies and conservation groups to make it happen.

But as the Verde River flows stronger, the town of Camp Verde and the local economy are reaping the benefits.

“Over the last three to four years, the increase in boaters on the Verde has been huge,” said Schonek. “To have recreation and tourism, you need to take care of the river.”

Originally published at National Geographic