Bailey is the Desert Rivers Program Manager at the Arizona Land and Water Trust. After graduating from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL with degrees in environmental studies and economics, Bailey worked on water utility emergency response at U.S. EPA, with a particular focus on drought resilience. An interest in interdisciplinary water management brought her to University of Arizona for graduate school, where she worked as a graduate research assistant at the Water Resources Research Center. Bailey joined the Arizona Land and Water Trust in March 2018, where she works with agricultural landowners to restore flow to Southern Arizona rivers.
This interview was published on January 13, 2020.
Tell me about your role at the Arizona Land and Water Trust.
I’ve managed the Trust’s Desert Rivers Program for about two years now. We were founded as a land trust in 1978 to protect working lands – primarily through conservation easements – across southern Arizona. Whether it’s our conservation easement work or our Desert Rivers work, we work with interested and willing landowners who approach us. Over time, the Trust has built a relationship with the agricultural community through our conservation work and our commitment to preserving ranch land and keeping the land in family hands for future generations. Because of these close relationships, agricultural producers across the region began to look to us with questions about water use and conservation, which motivated the Trust to consider how we might focus more specifically on water conservation. We started, about 12 years ago, by providing workshops about water rights and conservation strategies, and these conversations ultimately led us to establish our Desert Rivers Program. Through this program, I now work with farmers and ranchers in three river systems, the Upper Gila, the Lower San Pedro, and the Upper Santa Cruz, to establish short-term water savings agreements, known as water transactions, that conserve water on-farm for use in the river systems.
How has the Trust established itself in such a way that landowners can come to you?
With such a strong history of land protection, folks in the agricultural community have really become familiar with us. It’s a lot of neighbors telling neighbors and that’s generally how the word gets out. We also host a workshop series called Ranching Into the Future where experts join us in local communities to speak to conservation and ranching related topics; it’s a platform for us to share our work.
The same kind of messaging is true for our water transaction work. Our first water transaction was back in 2012 on the Upper Gila River and we worked with a landowner who approached us after one of our workshops. He was interested in seeing what kind of agreement we could come to that would benefit his operations and our goals of restoring river flows. With support from a funding partner, we incentivized him to fallow his field for one year; he would use that funding to purchase equipment needed to sustain his operations, then would resume agricultural production the following year. Meanwhile, the water that wasn’t pumped and applied to that field remained in the river. This landowner told his neighbor, who told his neighbor, and we actually ended up working with four landowners along that single reach of river. That was the real kickoff to our Desert Rivers Program.
How do you overcome the challenge of communicating to farmers and ranchers as a conservation group?
Well, first of all, the Trust isn’t an advocacy organization. There are plenty of groups in Arizona that do conservation policy and advocacy, but we aren’t one of them. The main reason for that is we want anyone and everyone to feel comfortable approaching us about a project, about a potential land or water transaction on their property. We do work with other conservation groups in Arizona that are doing advocacy and policy, to help translate stories from the ground – and vice versa, translate policy discussions to the landowners, if it’s relevant to them.
But your question about walking the line between being a conservation group and identifying with the agricultural community is exactly the position that we’re in all the time. Our Desert Rivers Program, in particular, is really structured around finding those mutual benefits between supporting rural livelihoods and supporting river systems. It is a fine line and sometimes it’s difficult to find those mutual benefits, but that is our lane.
What does your water transactions process look like in practice?
Each transaction requires two agreements: one with the landowner about the terms of the water use reduction, and one with a funding partner. Our agreements with landowners who limit their water use never exceed five years, otherwise their rights could be subject to loss under Arizona’s unique forfeiture laws. The funding partner provides a financial incentive that we then provide to the landowner.
Over the years, our funding partners have included Walton Family Foundation, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Bonneville Environmental Foundation, among others. Bonneville is unique in that they connect us with corporations that are interested in supporting water savings, whether it’s to offset their corporate water use or meet internal sustainability objectives – it’s a really great funding model.
As an example of a water transaction, we’ve worked with a ranch on the Lower San Pedro and this family really cares about holistic management of their land and was really interested to see a soil system and pasture that was able to retain water. We were able to work with them to convert their historic pasture to a lower water use pasture of native grasses, which have deep, stabilizing root systems and, once established, require very little irrigation. This is the type of win-win project our program aims to support.
Why are these agreements less than five years?
Most of our agreements are one to three years. In Arizona, if you don’t use your full water right for five successive years, you may be subject to lose some or all of that right. We want to make sure that landowners’ water rights aren’t in jeopardy, so our agreements are always going to be less than five years.
What are the most prominent challenges you face?
One challenge is building support and a sense of stewardship for desert river systems. I’m sure this is experienced, in some degree, by organizations working on river conservation across the country, but here it’s a little different because our river systems don’t always have water on the surface. So how do you build support in a local, rural community for a river that doesn’t always have water? Or, how do you communicate that to partners who are based in other parts of the country? It’s certainly one of our challenges: communicating and telling stories around intermittent rivers.
On top of that, quantifying water savings in connected groundwater-surface water systems is difficult – it certainly complicates the math when we quantify the impact of our water transactions on streamflow.
How do you approach telling these stories?
With agricultural producers, we focus our messaging on benefits that will be most readily realized by the landowner, not the Trust or even the river system. Our messaging around river health is somewhat secondary to messaging around what an agreement or water transaction could mean for them. A crop conversion for them could mean soil health and supporting their family and their agricultural operation next season, and those are the types of messages we focus on. Certainly, we are telling the story of river health and quantified water savings to funders, so it’s the Trust’s role to make the connections between those benefits. And as we’re interested in both aspects, to our network, we share a cohesive story of all these mutual benefits.
How do you approach a landowner who is unwilling to reach an agreement with the Trust? And alternatively, can you provide an example of one of your most successful relationships?
There are different reasons why a project might not come to fruition right away, and that can be on the landowner side or the funding side. On the landowner side, we can be as far along as having conversations with the funder to start mobilizing some resources, but there can still be hesitation because there’s a lot to consider. If a landowner isn’t ready for this kind of agreement, it requires us to be patient and understanding, to go for lunch every month and maintain a presence without being pushy. We will wait for them to come to us at a time that works for them.
The example I provided earlier, the landowner interested in converting to a lower water use pasture, we’ve actually done four short-term water transactions with this landowner. That has been a very fruitful partnership. The first and second were fallowing agreements, the third was a crop conversion agreement, and the fourth was a sprinkler system efficiency improvement project. So yes, we definitely have landowners that we’ve entered into multiple transactions with. We’ve actually done 13 water transactions with six landowners, which shows that the partners we’ve worked with have found the projects beneficial and enjoyed working with us.
Why are these water transactions so important to water conservation?
I think that, particularly in Arizona, by taking a holistic perspective and including rural landowners, we can come to more mutual agreements for the benefit our watersheds. Often, there’s finger-pointing toward the agricultural community, especially in the arid southwest, because these practices can be so water-intensive. These accusations aren’t going to move us forward for the health of our rivers. Being inclusive and understanding can be really productive for river conservation.