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The Desert Farmer

With a well-managed water strategy, Scott Tollefson grows

melons and hope in the Harquahala Valley.
Sean Murray
Scott Tollefson farms melons in the Harquahala
Valley desert west of Phoenix. The valley is an

term drought.
Tollefsons family hails from the Midwest,

oasis of lush green farmland juxtaposed against a

where many of his kin were farmers. Tollefson,

brown and red landscape peppered with sharp and

though, spent his early years in Washington D.C.

thorny vegetation.

His father, a man who loved the world of politics,

Years of farming have left a permanent mark on

worked directly for Ezra Taft Benson, the under

Tollefson, the manager for Del Monte Farms in

secretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agri-

Arizona. His hands are calloused and gritty. His

cultural services during the Eisenhower admini-

face is lined with wrinkles, which highlight his

stration. Though he spent his childhood in the na-

animated blue eyes. He smiles warmly from be-

tions capital, Tollefson was apathetic to politics

neath his grey moustache.

and yearned for the land.

Hes a man of the desert, an innovative farmer.

He eventually

Years of farming
have left a
permanent mark on

It seems counterintuitive to farm in a desert that

ventured west to attend

receives a meager average of 13 inches of rain

the University of Ari-

each year. Available groundwater and the com-

zona, where he earned

plex surface-water irrigation systems established

both an undergraduate and graduate degree in agri-

by the Central Arizona Project and the Salt River

culture. Scott fell in love with the desert.

Project have compensated for much of the rainfall

When his studies came to a close, Tollefson re-

deficit, but those systems are constantly under

mained with the university to work with the

pressure from population growth and severe long-

schools cooperative extension service. He

worked with farmers on solutions to manage in-

along with the yield of the crops. The results

sects, disease, crop failure, and soil health. It was

shocked them. The flooded plots of land used up to

here that Tollefson began to wonder about water.

nine acre-feet of water, equivalent to filling nine

The way people were irrigating with flood, peo-

football fields with water one foot deep. The water

ple were using too much, he said.

would percolate deep into the ground and the

Flood irrigation, the traditional way of watering

cropnot having full exposure to the resource

crops in the southwest, consists of flooding a plot

produced a small yield.

of land for an extended period of time in order to

The drip plots, on the other hand, only used 3 acre-

soak the roots of plants. He quickly realized that

feet of water. More direct percolation produced

wasting a resource as precious as water in a place

four times the yield of the flood plots. These star-

like the desert is foolish at best.

tling differences convinced the farmers to use drip

Once he came to this realization, Tollefson sought

to water crops.

out others who shared his convictions. After two

Drip, however, was not a perfect system. The bulky

years working for the university, he partnered

and heavy drip tapes used by the Israelis required

with Howard Wuertz, owner of Sundance Farms

large labor crews to roll them up after each use.

in Coolidge, Arizona.

Hoe crews easily damaged lines in the field as they

Wuertz was inspired by the agricultural practices

tilled the land. The hot desert sun would degrade

of Israeli farmers and their use of surface drip

the tape quickly.

systems, according to Tollefson. With the aid of

With flood irrigation, all one had to do was open a

Tollefson and another colleague, he began to look

valve and let the water out. The pipes were laid

for ways to implement similar practices in Ari-

deep into the ground where they couldnt be dam-


aged and rendered labor crews unnecessary.

The team designated small plots of land for flood

So, Tollefson and his friends put their lines under-

and drip irrigation. Over the course of a growing

ground: problem solved. Drip crews became obso-

season they measured the amount of water used

lete. The lines placed into the ground were pro-

tected from the sun and monitored with GPS track-

residency. There is broad speculation on what

ers to prevent damage from farm machinery.

eventually happened to the Hohokam. When they

Other benefits were soon discovered. The bulky

disappeared, their

Israeli surface drip lines easily clogged. Every

canals remained as

row of crop would require a drip line on both

reminders of their

sides, making salt monitoringa crucial factor for


seed germinationdifficult to manage. The sub-

When the first prospectors came to the Arizona

surface tape was smaller and didnt clog. Instead

territory, searching for minerals that would make

of using two drip lines only one was needed,

them rich, the canals were rediscovered and dug

placed under the plant roots. The placement made

out like lost treasure. A new civilization was born

monitoring salt levels easier and further decreased

from the ashes of the Hohokam civilization.

water usage to 1.5 acre-feet. Lastly, because the

With flowing water, the modern Arizona began to

new tape didnt clog, crops could be fumigated

take shape. Early in the territorys history, legisla-

and fertilized through the drip lines. The results:

tion was passed that established the doctrine of

more quality food, less work, reduced costs, and,

prior appropriation: First in Time, First in Right.

most importantly, reduced water consumption.

This enabled landowners to claim rights to water

First in Time, First

in Right.

throughout the state, which set the stage for many

Arizonas arid climate forces water management
Arizonas arid climate has forced civilizations to

The first half of the century saw explosive

progressively manage water. The prehistoric Ho-

development in water infrastructure. Rivers were

hokam Tribe developed complex irrigation sys-

dammed for water management, the most signifi-

tems that spanned 500 miles throughout central

cant being the Colorado River. Consistent winter

and southern Arizona. The Hohokams irrigation

storms left high snow packs in the Rocky Moun-

systems allowed them to cultivate their desert

tains and the Colorado River flowed at an all-time

landscape successfully during their multi-century

high. Unaware of its potential to drop, policymak-

ers signed complex treaties that allocated high

Even with all the conservation efforts, todays

portions of water to the seven basin states that

farmers still have a lot to fear. Heather Macre, a CAP

laid claim to it.

board member, told me the first cuts go to agriculture

In the latter half of the century, the climate

during water shortages. When this happens, farmers

of the region began to slowly change resulting in

will more than likely return to groundwater pumping

lower annual flows. As the Colorado River yield

and this could damage the long-term health of Ari-

dropped, disputes between states escalated and

zonas fragile aquifers.

led to major lawsuits. An important turning

Macre has been able to work with farmers and

point, The 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act

successfully implement many of the CAP water con-

ensured that California would receive its full al-

servation programs. In Yuma, for example, the CAP

lotment of water during times of shortages before

and farmers are working on a pilot study in which

any water was granted to Arizona.

farmers would forgo some of their water allotment in

The Central Arizona Project (CAP), which

transported Colorado River water through Arizona, was finally under way by 1973. Because of

exchange for credit that would subsidize their loss of

Steve Smarik, the state conservationist for the

the growing severity of droughts, the completion

National Resource Conservation Service, told me the

of the CAP canal was a high priority; however,

original plan for Arizonas development was to com-

the Bureau of Reclamation was threatening to cut

pletely replace agriculture with municipalities. Sma-

funding to the project because of Arizonas exces-

rik said that prior to the recession urban sprawl was

sive use of groundwater. The state, under pres-

claiming farmland across the state at a rapid rate.

sure, readdressed prior appropriation and enacted

Even with the economic slowdown, however, he pro-

the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. The

jects that farms will decrease radically in 50 years.

Act created urban-based Active Management Ar-

Farmers not immune to changing climate

eas that regulated and redefined the rules of

Tollefsons work with Howard Wuertz eventually

groundwater usage and transportation.

came to an end but his experiment with drip irrigation

has not. The soil on his melon acreage, when

To Tollefson, the southwest should primarily focus

compared to the soil of his flood-irrigating

on water scarcity. In his eyes, it is an issue of na-

neighbors, is soft and easy for a plants roots to

tional security. Local food sourcing is key. Outsourc-

penetrate. His drip lines, almost 20 years old, pro-

ing the nations food production to other countries

vide significant water savings.

because we have no water to grow our own food

But Tollefson is not immune to the chang-

spells danger to Tollefson.

ing climate.

If you cant produce your own food, he asks, and

Though he is extremely resourceful, major cut

the food-supplying nations system collapses how

backs from CAP water have threatened his prac-

are you going to eat?

tice. As he walked along a melon field, he ex-

Tollefsons not a pessimist, though. He hopes for a

plained the superior nature of river water to

brighter future for his 14 grandchildren. He believes

groundwater. River water picks up nutrients and

that, if people understand the problem, they will pull

minerals as it flows mile after mile. Drawn from

together and come up with the solutions needed to

an underground reservoir, groundwater lacks many

face a growing water crisis.

of those nutrients. In his words, it is the equivalent

of giving a baby Diet Coke.
His algae stations turn the nutrient-scarce

Before Tollefson came to the Harquahala Valley, the regions aquifer was nearly depleted from
flood irrigation and the soils were nearly exhausted.

groundwater into mothers milk. The algae con-

Many of the original growers responsible for the ar-

tain chemical and biological micronutrients that

chaic farming practices had left the valley.

flow through his irrigation lines to the roots of his

But on a late summer day, as his crews harvested a

melon plants.

rich bounty of melons, Tollefson voiced optimism

Tollefson has been able to make well water

about the sustainability of the valleys water supply.

work but is aware of its limited availability.

The desert farmer smiled and said, With the drip, its

He understands that eventually groundwater may

coming back.

be depleted.

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