Unusual partnerships may be necessary to bring some semblance of order to what could turn into contentious battles over water allocations across the country, and particularly in the arid west.
Long-term drought that heads into its fourth year across much of the Southwest has illuminated a problem that has been building for years—decreasing water supplies (including depleting aquifers) and increased demand from industry, municipalities, consumers and agriculture stretch resources as never before.
Conservation will be part of any long-term solution, but determining who cuts back and by how much and deciding just who will be in charge of divvying up the water will certainly be ticklish.
Cooperation and partnerships will help, said a trio of Western water users on hand for the annual Bayer CropSciences Ag Issues Conference, held recently in San Antonio just ahead of the annual Commodity Classic.
“We have to reduce water consumption,” said Mitchell Baalman, FDK Partnership, a 12,000-acre family farm in Hoxie, Kansas. That, he said, is indisputable. “We have too many straws pulling water out of the aquifer, which is declining 1.5 feet per year. That’s serious”
He said the aquifer is some 60 feet lower today than it was in 2000. “Too much pumping,” he said.
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Out in Idaho, Gary Beck, farm manager for Hillside Ranch in Blaine County, said he realized ten years ago that the operation needed to do something because the “aquifer was dropping. We were digging wells deeper and costs were going up.”
Much of the farm’s production was geared toward malt barley for Miller Coors. Marco Ugarte, sustainability manager, water and energy stewardship for Miller Coors, said a company goal was to reduce the environmental footprint of the company, especially water use.
“We found that 90 percent of our water use occurred before barley got to the brewery,” he said. “That was an eye-opening finding. A corporate goal is to reduce water use and we saw an opportunity to conserve water on the farm.”
The gum in the works for both Baalman and Beck was to determine how to conserve water and still maintain profitable production levels. In each case, partnerships and compromise played deciding roles.
“We had to go through the political system,” Baalman said. “But we got farmers involved.” They devised a voluntary conservation program, with oversight rom the Kansas Division of Water Resources. “The key was we had too many wells pumping too much water,” he said.
Farmers who volunteered now limit water use to 55 inches over a five-year period, averaging 11 inches per year. “We’ve just finished our first year and have about 20 percent of our farmers involved. We need many more but we understand that some will never change.
“But the restriction has made us better producers. We’re using technology, including GMO crops, to increase efficiency. We’re also using data better.”
Baalman said improved efficiency is the key to making water conservation work. “We went to pivots from flood irrigation. We were putting too much water into the rivers.”
Beck and Ugarte worked through the Nature Conservancy to create water-savings programs for Hillside Ranch. “Beck got a $140,000 grant from the Nature Conservancy to rework irrigation systems. “That did not cover all costs,” Beck said. “Total was about $250,000.”
“It’s an unusual partnership,” he said. “We don’t always agree and environmentalists are not always viewed as friends of agriculture. But we have to be smart.”
He said part of the agreement with the Nature Conservancy is sharing information. “The biggest challenge is communication,” he said. “Now, we sponsor field days and have schools and science teachers visit on sustainability field trips.”
He said neighboring farmers were skeptical. “They thought the effort would be a flop. We owe a lot to the Nature Conservancy.”
The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends, according the organization’s website. 
“We have to be willing to understand collectively how to advance together,” Ugarte said. “Partners, including business, farmers and others are important and together we can tell the story of success and help understand resource management.”
Change, they agree, is inevitable. “We have to be willing to change,” Baalman said. “If we don’t change, we will get left out.”