Water Shortages Force Farmers To Reckon With Changing Climate : The NPR Politics Podcast Droughts, worsening fire seasons, temperature swings and monsoons all impact farmers' businesses, food production, utility costs and livelihoods. The new normal has caused some farmers to feel politically homeless — many felt abandoned by Trump-era tariff policies despite generally identifying as conservative voters. And despite the billions in funding for agriculture-related programs in Biden's signatures climate law, many farmers still feel as though lawmakers could be doing more to support them.

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, political reporter Ximena Bustillo, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

The podcast is produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Water Shortages Force Farmers To Reckon With Changing Climate

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Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: I'm Ximena Bustillo, and I also cover politics.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And today we're taking a look at how climate change and politics are intersecting in the state of Arizona, specifically how conservative farmers are dealing with historic water shortages on the Colorado River. Ximena, you were just in Arizona reporting on this. What attracted you to this story?

BUSTILLO: Well, the Colorado River Basin has been seeing more exacerbated conditions. It's been undergoing a 20-year drought, so that's not necessarily new. But there have been added swings in temperature and continued overuse of the river water, which, you know, leads to shortages and farmers and communities seeing their water levels drop and cut, their utilities costs rise. And this really affects, particularly, the agriculture community. About 80% of the water from the Colorado River goes to agriculture, which gives us our produce during the winter months. A lot of people don't know this, but a lot of our leafy greens that we eat in salads come from Yuma, Ariz., and Southern California, which, you know, is primarily known for being a desert-y (ph) area. But that's how we get salads.

DAVIS: You said it was about agriculture, but is the Colorado River also critical for the water supply for people to drink as well?

BUSTILLO: Yes. So particularly, it also is really big for utilities and water use within cities. So it flows into major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, Ariz. Those are kind of the big water users there.

MONTANARO: And, Ximena, there was news that because of these shortages, there are actually going to be cuts to the water supply. How's that going to work?

BUSTILLO: So three states - Colorado, Nevada and Arizona - reached a deal. They all decided to cut their water use by what's called 3 million acre-feet of water. So an acre-foot is an acre and then one foot of volume. So kind of think about it that way, kind of, like, in a 3D sense. So 3 million acre-foot of water over the next couple years. I will note, this is a temporary solution, and it's still undergoing some review from the Interior Department, which is the one that was potentially going to need to intervene over the next couple months if the states themselves didn't propose a solution. And there were fears of federal government intervention in that sense. But this is still, even if approved, a temporary solution. It is only until 2026.

So this problem is not necessarily going away, which is only going to make the problems worse if there isn't some sort of long-term solution like many groups are asking for, whether it's agricultural groups, whether it's environmental groups and conservation groups as well. And I think there's this idea that rural areas, which are primarily feeling the brunt of a lot of this - right? - they're primarily the ones that are more farming communities, more agricultural users, but also the ones that are seeing their utility costs increase as a result of these water shortages. They tend to lean a little bit more conservative, and that can sometimes put them at odds with climate activists or climate change and that kind of idea, notion. But really, it's a lot more complicated than that.

DAVIS: I mean, it makes sense to me that you would have to ration water if the supply is getting smaller. But is there longer-term solutions for how to address this? I don't know what happens when you run out of water. It's not like you can just create more water in these situations.

BUSTILLO: Right. It's not like you can just create more water. And I think a lot of Western states are in a very fortunate position this winter because there was unprecedented snowfall, and it was a really wet winter in a lot of areas throughout the Rocky Mountain West and into California, as we all know. But, you know, that's also not usually the way things go, and it's not something that can be relied upon. And you're right, you can't just stop...

DAVIS: You can't make policy around the weather.

BUSTILLO: Yes, you can't make policy around the weather, which is part of the problem, right? You also can't just run your business around the weather, but it's what farmers do every day, which is what makes it such a risky business. But you can't just create water out of nowhere. In terms of a longer-term solution, there really isn't one. And that's because it's really complicated. It comes down to individual water rights that not only individual people have, but different regions, different states and Native American tribes and how these all affect one another. If someone's water gets cut but they have a legal right to that water, are they going to sue over that? Are they going to be OK with it? Are they going to get a government, you know, payment in order to make up for losing that water? So there's a lot of things to figure out. After 2026, if this plan is approved, there's currently not something in place. But this is something. It's a Band-Aid to a much larger problem.

DAVIS: You went to Arizona, and you talked to some of the farmers affected by the situation. What did they tell you?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, so I went down there. I spent a couple days driving between Maricopa County, which is where Phoenix is, down into Yuma, which is where a lot of leafy greens are grown, and then over into Tucson, over in that area as well. And that area, you know, just to kind of put it in perspective, has a very robust agricultural scene. We have nut groves. We have all the leafy greens you could think of. We have tomatoes growing. Really, there's a lot going on down there that you might not necessarily imagine.

DAVIS: Yeah, I always think of it as being more desert...


DAVIS: ...But - not as much of this fertile agricultural areas you're describing.

BUSTILLO: Right. But there's really so much more to it, which means that a lot of these farmers are needing to adapt. And I spoke to farmers across the political spectrum. One thing that I did hear from different folks was that they're tapping into the Agriculture Department's voluntary conservation programs. And this is money that got a significant boost in the Inflation Reduction Act last year. There was an added 20 billion more dollars for these programs.

And what these programs do is they give farmers money to either not plant for a certain season and kind of conserve their land, but it also gives them money to line their ditches with concrete so that water doesn't seep into the ground and they don't lose as much water down there or implement different forms of irrigation that could potentially conserve more water. And so they're, across the board, tapping into that and into those programs. And they're pretty, actually, excited about the added money that these programs got from Democrats just because it means more people will be able to use it and more money will be available.

DAVIS: I imagine the water shortages have already been affecting farmers there.

BUSTILLO: Yeah, some farmers, such as Cassy England, who grows all sorts of produce, including cotton, which she just planted - and she got to show us her little sprouts - currently lost 50% of her water.


BUSTILLO: She is no longer getting any Colorado River water. This was before the most recent cuts deal was announced. Her canals are dry. She is only relying on groundwater.

CASSY ENGLAND: We're getting none at this time. Yeah, completely none. And so the groundwater levels in our area are good, but we need to be able to maintain that and not overuse that.

BUSTILLO: But it's still such an interesting patchwork because some of her neighbors don't have groundwater at all, which means they completely lost water and they're not able to farm.

ENGLAND: We're just lucky that we don't have to deal with that 'cause that would be a very big worry 'cause, yeah, there's some people that are going to be in a dire situation.

BUSTILLO: And even with groundwater being cut, I mean, she's still not able to plant to her fullest capacity. So she's expecting to lose about 30% of revenue. And, again, these changes happened really fast. She got a notice last fall. That's about when they start ordering what they're going to plant, preparing all their machinery, all their acres, all their land. So there will definitely be financial losses for her.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this when we get back.

And we're back. And, Ximena, I like this story because, yes, it's about climate change; yes, it's about agriculture; yes, it's about farmers. But it's really a political story from the way I see it. I mean, not only is rural America such a central part of our current politics, but all of these issues - things like climate change - are so politically divisive in how people view it and what the solution should be. And I wonder if you talked to these farmers about what their personal politics were about it.

BUSTILLO: Yeah, I definitely did. I eventually asked them all how they politically affiliated. We talked a little bit about the upcoming 2024 election as well. There seems to be some consensus that the current spending on conservation programs is good. I spoke to one particular farmer, Craig Alameda, who's from a traditionally conservative family. But he says he's willing to consider candidates on both sides and has been able to use some of these conservation programs.

CRAIG ALAMEDA: I think - to promote conservation, I think they're wonderful. If you - you just got to be able to navigate the process and stay with it.

BUSTILLO: And ultimately, being able to access these programs itself is just to bear really long applications, really technical information that the federal government is asking for. And that exists regardless of the political party that's in power. I spoke to another farmer, Kristin (ph), who says she's from a traditionally Democratic family, but she doesn't necessarily see either party actually really paying attention to the food system and to the agriculture and farming community.

KRISTIN: I think just how they - if they're responsive to our issues as farmers or not, that definitely influences how I vote. But I don't particularly feel like the Democrat Party or the Republican Party as a whole - again, it goes back to the individual. I don't feel like one or the other as a whole is better to the farming issues.

BUSTILLO: And so a really interesting thing that really came up is some farmers naturally, when we were talking about this, pointed out the Trump tariffs on China that really heavily negatively affected farmers. And sure, maybe some of them got some sort of a federal programming kickback eventually from losses to exports over to China. But they mentioned that as something that was not great and that they remember and don't really like at all. So you have a Democratic president right now with some policies in place that are pretty beneficial to them, but they're weighing that against maybe their politics of leaning maybe a little more Republican. But having just had a Republican president, that wasn't necessarily great for them either.

DAVIS: Domenico, I like stories like this because sometimes politics is complicated, and sometimes politics is simple. And this is a story where it's a good reminder that politics is complicated. You think about rural America, and we so closely associate it with very conservative politics, but it's also a region that is being profoundly affected by climate change, which, frankly, you more closely associate as an issue that the left cares much more about than conservatives do.

MONTANARO: Well, water crosses political lines. I mean, this is really the big issue of the 21st century in a lot of ways. You know, arguably, a lot of people have talked about it across the world, whether it's the Middle East, South America or the American West. And, you know, specifically targeting in on Arizona is interesting for our line of work because that's a really important swing state. And this crosses some stereotypical political lines. You know, it's not just red and blue, you know, when you have rural voters who are having to, as Ximena was finding, you know, really think about which party is going to be the one to help. And,

you know, you think about somebody like Mark Kelly, who's a senator from Arizona, or Kyrsten Sinema, who's also the other senator from Arizona. You know, both - one is Democrat; Sinema has now switched to independent. And they sort of cross political lines, too, because of something like this, where they understand that they have to kind of try to solve people's problems. And when you have a problem that's this pressing, you want whoever is going to be able to solve that problem, and it's going to take a huge effort from people in both parties to step up to figure out something that's as complicated as this.

BUSTILLO: Yeah, and speaking of Senator Mark Kelly, I did speak to one farmer, Kyle Kuechel, who described himself as a staunch independent, even though his dad flies a Trump flag. His parents are citrus growers, so he's from a longtime farming family - very conservative. But he calls himself a staunch independent. He said, you know, he didn't vote for Mark Kelly, but has recently met with him. And if he, you know, reaches across the aisle and makes moves to try and help the agriculture industry with some of the issues that they're facing like this, then he would probably vote for him.

KYLE KUECHEL: Hopefully it'll be - it won't fall on deaf ears. We'll see. I didn't vote for the guy, but if he listens to me, I'd vote for him.

MONTANARO: Did you find that people seemed to change their views on climate change at all? Did you ask about that and how they sort of feel about that changing? Because, you know, when you look at polling nationally, there's a huge divide on whether or not people think that climate change is a major threat. About 8 in 10 Democrats call it a major threat, according to Pew, but only a quarter of Republicans say that.

BUSTILLO: I do think the farming community might be of a particular mindset just because the weather - like we mentioned earlier, the climate changing swings, like, that is so noticeable to their everyday business and their livelihoods. So one farmer, Craig Alameda, you know, he made the point that it used to be that if you were a farmer, you were known as a conservationist and you were for open lands.

ALAMEDA: It was kind of the opposite, where we were the ones for open spaces and taking care of everything. And now all of a sudden, we become the bad guy.

BUSTILLO: And so that's kind of referencing, like, the common idea of farming as, you know, larger factory farms, the use of fertilizer, being very prone to pollution, the kind of, like, dirtier, throwing, expelling into the environment that farms might be known more for now than maybe they were a couple decades ago. But there is this overall consensus that - whether it's temperature swings in the upper West, whether it's the drought in the Southwest - someone needs to do something to alleviate what is happening because it's not at all beneficial to what they're calling - you know, food security is national security for the country. So that might be different than the general GOP or rural consensus on climate.

DAVIS: Ximena, you focused on Arizona, but the themes in this story ripple across the country. I mean, this is an issue that maybe is localized in different states, but the effects of climate change and how it's affecting local people and local policies seems like a national story to me.

BUSTILLO: Absolutely. And, you know, even if you just want to turn to food inflation and how big of an issue that was leading up to the midterms, you know, we had farmers say that if we stop farming in this region, food is just going to get more expensive if you can't get your leafy greens and your vegetables in the winter. So, you know, it always comes down to - what's local ends up trickling its way up, whether it's the climate, whether it's the price of your food that you can get in your grocery store, whether it's the cost of that labor. So definitely branches out far beyond just the West.

DAVIS: All right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

BUSTILLO: I'm Ximena Bustillo, and I also cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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