Agriculture, Water, and Institutions: An Investigation of Water Management Policy and its Effects on Water Use by Agriculture in Arizona

Final Report for GW10-015

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $8,795.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Grant Recipient: Arizona State University
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
John Anderies
Arizona State University
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Project Information


Western SARE funded original research for a Master of Science thesis project involving interviews with six farmers in the Phoenix and Pinal Active Management Areas in Arizona, as well as eight Arizona water policy experts. All interviews served as original research to supplement existing literature concerning the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) and agricultural water use. The master’s thesis examined how the GMA was originally designed and how the Act changed over time. Then, the thesis examined how such changes in the GMA impacted water use on farms. Lastly, interviews with farmers provided suggestions on how to boost agricultural water conservation.


Present-day human societies face various challenges in effectively managing water resources given limited supplies and increasing populations. One such challenge is to design policies, regulations and rules — collectively known as institutions (Ostrom, 2005) — in a manner compatible with the human and environmental context they seek to regulate. Examining the institutions governing groundwater in the Southwestern United States offers a glimpse into the challenge of achieving successful, long-term management of water resources in an arid environment with high population growth. “The allocation, use, and protection of water resources are among the West’s most important political and public policy issues” (Blomquist, Schlager, & Heikkila, 2004). Surface water and groundwater alike quench the West’s growing thirst. To narrow the scope of this study, I focused on groundwater.

One specific challenge arises when water resources, such as groundwater, exhibit characteristics of common-pool resources (CPRs). Common-pool resources consist of natural or man-made resource systems from which it is difficult to exclude resources users (Ostrom 1990). With CPR systems, one person’s use of a resource unit impacts another’s use by making that resource unit unavailable to others (Ostrom, 1990). Groundwater basins are an example of CPR systems, and the focus of this study. Scholars also incorporate CPRs into the broader study of social-ecological systems (SESs). “All humanly used resources are embedded in complex, social-ecological systems” (Ostrom, 2009, p. 419). Thus, SESs are ecological systems that are closely linked to and impacted by a social system (Anderies et al., 2004). Scholars emphasize the impact that proper and improper institutions, in combination with various physical and socioeconomic variables, can have in affecting the long-term performance of SESs (Ostrom, 2009; Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002). Institutions are the formal and informal rules-in-use that guide and shape human action (Lam, 2006; Adger, Brown, & Fairbrass 2003).

One way to examine the impact of institutions on the long-term performance of an SES is through the lens of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework (Ostrom, 2005). Employed as a way to develop structure across different case studies concerning human-environment interactions (Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002), the IAD was used as a framework to highlight how a specific groundwater management policy — the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 in Arizona, USA — was originally designed to reduce groundwater overdraft, a frequent dilemma in groundwater basin CPR systems. Overdraft occurs when the amount of groundwater removed from a basin exceeds the amount of water being restored; this is also referred to as exceeding safe yield or groundwater mining (Blomquist, 1992).

To stem its problem with groundwater mining, the state of Arizona passed the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) in 1980. The GMA intended to curb groundwater overdraft through a combination of conservation strategies, augmentation and supply development and reduction in agricultural water use through strict prohibition of its expansion in designated areas (Arizona Department of Water Resources [ADWR], 2004). The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) is the state agency charged with implementing and enforcing the law.

Employing the IAD framework in my analysis allowed for a schematic representation of the variables included in the GMA that Ostrom (2009) identifies as important for achieving long-term performance of an SES. In this case study, the SES of concern encompasses two regulated groundwater basins in south-central Arizona — the Phoenix and Pinal Active Management Areas (AMAs). I used the IAD framework to draw out what variables (as listed in Ostrom, 2009) are included and excluded from the GMA and to discuss the implications of this original institutional design for agricultural water users (farmers).

The project explored the institutional variables affecting how farmers make decisions regarding water use in south-central Arizona. In line with the Western SARE goal of examining the regional, economic, social, and environmental implications of adopting sustainable agriculture practices and systems, this project provided a better understanding of the institutional context that shapes and influences farmers' water use decisions. This project involved interviewing farmers and water policy professionals, as well as examining the available literature and public records. The product is an analysis of the GMA, with specific suggestions from interviewed farmers on ways to boost water conservation on farms in Arizona.

Today, with urbanization pressures and the halting of agricultural expansion, agriculture uses less water on the whole than in 1980. However, in spite of the conservation and efficiency regulations imposed on agriculture by the GMA, on a per-acre basis, agriculture's water consumption is stable (Needham &Wilson, 2005). Employing an analytical framework used to evaluate the contribution of institutions to the maintenance of SESs, my thesis examines: a) the original institutional design and process of institutional change within the GMA, b) how institutional change affects resource users' response to signals of water scarcity, and c) how to increase water conservation on farms.

Results from the institutional analysis indicate there was insufficient time to incorporate farmers' existing knowledge about water efficiency into the Act. Thus, after 1980, farmers fought against the regulations of the GMA in order to increase their water use flexibility. The thesis concludes with findings collected from primary data interviews concerning ways to increase water conservation on farms. Suggestions include: a greater understanding of the temporary nature of central Arizona agriculture in providing incentives to boost water conservation, the promotion of currently available incentives to invest in water conservation and increased farmer education about water-saving practices.

Project Objectives:

The research conducted and supported by the Western SARE 2010 Graduate Student Research and Education Grant sought:

1) To develop a greater understanding of the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) of 1980 and its ensuing modifications on the decision-making of local farmers with rights to pump groundwater in the Phoenix and Pinal AMAs, all in the face of water scarcity and urbanization pressures. Reviewing the available literature and conducting the institutional analysis (Ostrom 2005) contributed to achieving this objective.

2) To develop a list of strategies based off of interviews with farmers, as well as water policy professionals, concerning what they believe would encourage more efficient water use on farms. Interview questions will allow interviewees to express strategies they see as effective for encouraging water conservation practices on farms, as well as regulations they think are ineffective at encouraging water conservation on farms in the AMAs.

3) To communicate and disseminate the data with stakeholders in the water policy and agricultural communities. Originally, it was my intention to create a policy prescription paper, or “white” paper, that outlined several key findings from the mail surveys and interview questions to enhance the effectiveness of regulatory groundwater management practices. However, after gathering the interview data, it became clear that a more effective model of disseminating information would be through the existing publications channel maintained by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in conjunction with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. Therefore, a short, “quick reference” publication is in development to help farmers find information on water efficiency incentives.

4) Lastly, to describe the back-and-forth struggle to implement and solidify specific institutions designed to reduce agricultural water use in Active Management Areas.

The predicted timeline for these performance targets:

1) Gathering all relevant data: June 2009 to April 2010;

2) The development of mail survey and interview questions: September through October of 2009. The proper protocols for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval would also be taken during this time as well. Conducting and analyzing the surveys and interviews after IRB approval would likely occur beginning in October 2009 until February 2010 (so as to allow sufficient time to collect and analyze data and incorporate a master’s thesis);

3) Communicating and disseminating research results would occur over several different dates, beginning with my April 2010 the master’s thesis defense. In June 2010 I would present a poster at the Water Resources Research Center Annual Conference.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • John Anderies
  • Hallie Eakin


Materials and methods:

The project implemented in-person, in-depth interviews with a total of thirteen human subjects. All proper Institutional Review Board (IRB) procedures were followed. Because of the classification of my project from the IRB, the exempt status did not allow me to take pictures whereby farmers or their location could be identified. Thus, no pictures of farmers or their farms were taken for this project. I contacted farmers with the assistance of the Arizona Farm Bureau, Maricopa County Farm Bureau and the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County.

Documenting perceptions and viewpoints of farmers and water policy professionals through qualitative research methods enriched the data by allowing for depth and insight into what drives farmer decision-making concerning water use. I asked questions that allowed for open-ended responses. However, to ensure consistency, I asked all farmers the same set of questions and all water policy experts the same set of questions. I interviewed subjects with a digital recording device and, with the assistance of an undergraduate student worker, transcribed the interviews for analysis. I analyzed the separate interviews by looking for common themes and any stark differences.

In my thesis document, I conducted an institutional analysis whereby different components of the Groundwater Management Act as it related to agricultural water use were analyzed using Ostrom’s (2009) variables to understand why farmers pushed for reform for greater water use flexibility after the law’s 1980 passage.

Research results and discussion:

Upon agreement that an institution is needed to regulate an unsustainable CPR regime (such as groundwater overdraft from excessive pumping), rules are established that severely constrain the “authorized actions available to [the resource users]” (Ostrom, 1990, p. 43). To minimize the conflict over and depletion of groundwater in Arizona, the Arizona Department of Water Resources restricted and monitored the possible actions of agricultural groundwater users under the jurisdiction of the GMA.

From my analysis it became evident there was insufficient time during the drafting of the GMA to incorporate farmers’ existing knowledge into the institutional design. Therefore, not long after the law passed, farmers fought against it because they felt that the GMA constricted their flexibility to use water. Scholars studying other social-ecological systems around the world have noted that when users and other stakeholders are given a strong voice and real responsibility, users of natural resources, such as irrigation farmers, may enhance the economic and ecological performance of the SES (Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002). When institutions are crafted without consideration of the variables Ostrom (2009) suggests as important for sustainability, conflict in resource management can arise.

In the case of the GMA, farmers, excluded for the most part in the drafting of the legislation, did not find the rules favorable and thus lobbied for and won several concessions that would grant them greater flexibility in their water use. In turn, these concessions contributed to the stable water use from 1980-2002 as found by Needham and Wilson (2005). I argue that by not considering farmers’ existing knowledge about water use on farms, farmers did not buy in to the new regulations at the onset of the GMA and thus fought to change the rules in the years and decades following 1980. When outsiders seek to improve the performance of an SES, in this case, reduce overdraft by regulating farmers’ groundwater use, acknowledging and planning for the possible (sometimes perverse) incentives generated by new institutions as they interact with the existing social norms and physical world is critical if compliance with the established institutions and long-term performance of the SES is to be reached (Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002).

Some experts interviewed for this study suggested that the lawmakers who constructed the initial GMA rules knew little of the on-the-ground nuances related to farming, especially in the desert. “[The GMA] was written by people that ... didn’t really understand what was going on down on the farm” (Water-agriculture expert #5, personal communication, March 4, 2010). A farmer adds:

"There are a lot of assumptions that government people make that have low or no reality. You [can] talk hypothetically [about] the amount of water the plant need[s] but when you actually deliver that water in a production situation it is a lot different because the plant can’t take up all the water you send to it." (Farmer #6, personal communication, February 26, 2010)

Without a close examination of the various factors influencing agricultural water use included in the initial development of the GMA, the result was a mismatch between costs and benefits — at least as perceived by the agricultural resource users of south-central Arizona. Farmers were no longer permitted to expand their farms’ irrigated acreage. They were expected to become more efficient with their water use, and with that efficiency, experience reductions in the water allotted to their farms. The resource once extracted as a private property right was suddenly defined as the communal property of the state of Arizona to be divvied up based on a farmers’ historic use. A water expert suggests the stark reality farmers suddenly faced:

"I think it was shock at first for farmers that on June 11, 1980 you could use as much water and irrigate any land that you wanted. Then June 12, 1980 comes in and its like, “I can only irrigate this much, and how much water do I have to use? Who is going to tell me what to do?” (Water-agriculture expert #8, personal communication, March 10, 2010)

This mismatch sent the Arizona Department of Water Resources and state lawmakers scrambling to adjust certain provisions in the original Act to provide farmers the necessary flexibility to respond to changes in climate and the agricultural market not long after its 1980 passage. Anderies et al. (2004) highlight that institutions associated with successful SESs often provide a “rough proportionality between the benefits a resource user obtains and his or her contributions to the public infrastructure” (p. 12). An institution that does so is considered fair in most social systems (Issac et al., 1999). When institutions are constructed and considered fair, they reduce the chance that resource users will try to challenge, avoid or disrupt the policies of the public infrastructure providers (Anderies et al., 2004). To the agricultural sector of south-central Arizona, the GMA did not appear fair:

"[It was] an upheaval in the agriculture industry because we developed our water ourselves. The wells that we drilled we owned. We bought and paid for them, and took the risks when we drilled them. Sometimes you get dust, sometimes you get water. And here were some people ... suggesting that we were going to lose control of those wells and the water that came from them, and that the water belonged to the state of Arizona instead of to me and my peers. It was brutal." (Farmer #1, personal communication, February 3, 2010)

Thus, farmers, as water resource users, challenged the policy set forth by the Arizona public infrastructure providers to gain back some of the flexibility they felt they had lost (Megdal et al., 2008). According to Ostrom (1990), “Participants prefer a set of rules that will give them the most advantageous outcome. Although all will prefer a new institution that [enables] them to coordinate ... activities, ... a fundamental disagreement [may] arise among participants regarding which institution to choose” (p. 42). To receive a more advantageous institutional outcome, the agricultural sector fought for and won three significant institutional concessions from the ADWR: flex credits, the Best Management Practices conservation program and the reduced irrigation efficiency standard.

Some see the institutional concessions for agriculture as weakening the ability of the GMA to reduce groundwater use in the AMAs. Hirt et al. (2008) suggest “Arizonans took the water supply bull by the horns over a quarter century ago in a landmark water conservation law ... but subsequent loopholes and evasions have gutted its original intent and taken the state off the path toward sustainability” (p. 483). Once hailed as innovative and a model for other states, the GMA’s effectiveness at reducing overdraft is questionable, especially considering that most scholars and practitioners agree the AMAs are not on track to reach safe yield (ADWR, 2003a; Megdal et al., 2008). Designing institutions that offer the proper incentives to reach an end goal (e.g. reduced groundwater overdraft) is critically important to the long-term maintenance of an SES (Shivakoti & Ostrom, 2002).

Although farmers need water use flexibility, it is also noteworthy that if farmers implemented greater water conservation techniques, they may be better prepared in times of scarcity, because they need less water to achieve the same satisfactory outcome on their farm. Thus, if farmers are prepared to use water as efficiently as possible, their adaptive capacity to water scarcity shocks may increase. Water-conserving technologies allow farmers to save money when water is not scarce by using whatever water is available as efficiently as possible. However, if water does become scarce, on-farm efficiency technologies enable farmers to adapt to the scarcity conditions, when they might not have been able to do so otherwise.

Promoting agricultural water conservation

Instead of focusing on eliminating more agricultural land as a way to conserve groundwater, only to have it pumped later by a new suburban development, thus doing little to eliminate long-term overdraft issues, I will now emphasize the important role agriculture can play in conserving a substantial amount of water. As demonstrated above, agricultural water conservation not only benefits the groundwater basins, it can also boost the capacity a farmer has to adapt in scarcity situations. To develop recommendations and suggestions for boosting per-acre water conservation, I interviewed experts in water and agriculture, as well as central Arizona farmers.

Increasing per-acre water conservation in agriculture remains an elusive yet important component in managing Arizona’s groundwater resources sustainably, and one that can be implemented at the farm-level. Defined as the reduction of water use through enhanced efficiency (Gleick, 2002), conservation is critical to the future of Arizona as both groundwater and surface water supplies are predicted to become scarcer through long-term drought and increased urbanization (McKinnon, 2009a; McKinnon, 2009b). Conservation is critical to the performance of the Phoenix and Pinal AMAs because obtaining new supplies, through augmentation or importation for example, is expensive and “increasingly problematic” (Larson et al., 2009, p. 108). Conservation is important to the ADWR as well, and according to the Department, to reduce groundwater consumption by agriculture, improvements of on-farm irrigation systems and increased farm management will continue to be necessary (ADWR, 2003a). Agriculture contributed 46% of the total overdraft in the Phoenix AMA in the year 1995 (ADWR, 1999a). By reducing the amount of water consumed per-acre, agriculture’s contribution to overdraft can be mitigated, and the performance of the groundwater basins improved.

General, repeating themes from the primary data interviews included the sentiment that more state-level statutory negotiations and institutional amendments to curb agricultural water use are not going to be effective at achieving increased water conservation, mainly because the previously discussed institutional battles have left both the ADWR and farmers politically exhausted. Similarly, both experts and farmers suggested that achieving greater agricultural water conservation is likely to come from economic incentives that farmers choose to implement on their farms, not from increased regulation. Lastly, it was often expressed that farmers want to be as efficient with their water use as economically possible because water is an input cost and anything that reduces costs is appealing to farmers as business operators. To develop strategies to conserve water, efforts to tap into this social norm should be increased.

Specific recommendations from those interviewed will now be highlighted. By interviewing central Arizona farmers, I attempted to understand how the people immersed in the day-to-day nuances of growing crops interpret water conservation and its importance. Additionally, through the interviews, I elicited any suggestions for increasing conservation farmers had to offer. Obtaining experts’ views on potential methods for increasing per-acre conservation provided a balanced picture with what farmers suggested. Many of the suggestions from farmers and experts are compatible, an encouraging sign for increasing water conservation on farms in Arizona. With this original contribution of primary interview data, some implementable suggestions surfaced. Please note that some suggestions tend to reflect farmers’ experiences with various local, state and national agricultural organizations, and thus are very specific.

The recommendations for increasing water conservation on farms in central Arizona include:

1. Recognition by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — a USDA-sponsored organization that “works with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals that result in productive lands and healthy ecosystems” (Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS], 2010a) — of the temporary nature of farming in central Arizona, a rapidly urbanizing area. By recognizing that farmers move around the area and farm different plots of land depending on their specific situation, the NRCS could adjust their requirement necessitating proof of land tenure to receive funding for water conservation improvements. This would allow more farmers who are leasing land the opportunity to participate in NRCS grants and other opportunities (Farmer #5, personal communication, February, 16, 2010).

2. Many farmers now lease the land they farm from developers who are not yet ready to develop. Leases tend to be temporary in nature, with some only season-to-season. With such short time horizons and uncertainty about the duration that one will be farming, investment in water savings technologies decreases. With greater access to incentives — state tax credits or federal matching funds, for example — to install efficient irrigation systems (such as sprinkler, drip, level basin), a farmer could recoup his or her investment faster and be more likely to invest in water savings technologies on the farm (Farmer #2, personal communication, February 10, 2010; Farmer #5, personal communication, February, 16, 2010; Water-agriculture expert #1, personal communication, January 28, 2010).

3. An increased presence of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in Arizona. EQIP provides a “voluntary conservation program for farmers and ranchers that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals. EQIP offers financial and technical help for eligible participants to install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land” (NRCS, 2010b) (Water-agriculture expert #1, personal communication, January 28, 2010).

4. Promote the leasing (instead of the ownership) of portable irrigation systems, such as sprinklers and drip. By leasing portable water-savings technologies, farmers who do not want to purchase a permanent physical structure, because they are unsure of the duration that they will be farming on a specific plot of land, have another way of accessing efficient irrigation technologies (Farmer #5, personal communication, February, 16, 2010).

5. Continue to provide state tax credit opportunities for water conservation. “The tax credits really helped pay for all of our drip irrigation upgrades because it is a dollar for dollar off of your taxes. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise” (Farmer #2, personal communication, February 10, 2010).

6. The ADWR sponsors a Water Management Assistance Program and has other funds to help the agricultural sector implement on-farm water efficiency technologies (ADWR, 1999b). Continue to promote and make farmers aware of the assistance that is available to them. “[It is] funded every year and only a handful of people take advantage of it” (Water-agriculture expert #8, personal communication, March 10, 2010).

7. Increased farmer education. Farmers who have been irrigating a certain way their whole life may just continue to operate in that manner because they are accustomed to certain methods of irrigating. Through increased education, farmers can see how efficient practices are implemented on the farm and how they save water (Water-agriculture expert #8, personal communication, March 10, 2010).

8. Although there would be implications on the economics of farming, raising the price of water would induce significant water savings on farms because if something is more expensive, people tend to use less (Water-agriculture expert #4, personal communication, March 4, 2010; Water-agriculture expert #5, personal communication, March 4, 2010; Water-agriculture expert #6, personal communication, March 5, 2010).

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Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

My first presentation of the data occurred at my master’s thesis defense in April 2010. To communicate and disseminate these research results to a wider audience, I presented a poster at the Water Resources Research Center’s Annual Conference in June 2010. That poster won the “most informative” poster award, determined by conference participant voting. Both the PowerPoint presentation of my thesis defense and the a small version of my poster display are included in the Final Printed Report submission to Western SARE.

Those interviewed for this project provided concrete recommendations to promote agricultural water conservation on farms in Arizona. One such recommendation includes increasing farmer education on what is currently available to help growers irrigate more efficiently. As one interviewee stated, “farmers who have been irrigating a certain way their whole life may just continue to operate in that manner because they are accustomed to certain methods of irrigating. If more (farmers) knew what resources were available to them, we may see some shifts in how they irrigate” (Water-agriculture expert #8, personal communication, March 10, 2010).

In response to this recommendation, a “quick reference” publication will be produced in collaboration with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. The tentative name for this publication is: Simple Guide to Water Conservation Incentives: Agricultural Irrigation. The publication will describe the different forms of incentives available to farmers, such as tax credits, grants, cost-shares, tax rebates and tax credits. It will also describe the eligibility, application and reporting requirements involved with each different type of incentive. Pertinent information for locating county, state and federal assistance to boost water conservation on agricultural land will be identified, along with website links on where to find more information. By compiling all of this information in one document, Arizona farmers will have a one-stop, go-to reference. The publication will stay up-to-date and be modified as different incentives arise and others are phased out. The initial steps in the publication process as required by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona have been initiated. This publication will be produced with assistance from Summer Waters, the Extension Agent in Water Resources at the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension office. We predict having the publication ready by June 2011.

Additional outreach activities were performed with the presentation of my master’s thesis and Western SARE research at the Universities Council on Water Resources/National Institutes for Water Resources (UCOWR/ NIWR) 2011 Annual Conference in Boulder, CO, from July 11-July 14, 2011.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.