Arizona's Ak-Chin Indian Community Leads Way In Efficient, Water-Saving Farm Tech

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 8:34am
Updated: Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 3:48pm
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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Linear overhead sprinklers water crops on the Ak-Chin farmland.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Leona Kakar with the Ak-Chin championed for a strong water rights settlement for her tribe, the first (and last) of its kind by Congress.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
U.S. Department of Agriculture Arid Land Agriculture Research Center researcher Kelly Thorp shows how the sprinkler heads can be changed to put out more or less water.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Alyssa Garcia, who is a former Miss Indian Arizona, considers the Ak-Chin tradition of farming an important enterprise to continue.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Ak-Chin farm manager Steve Coester talks to a worker monitoring the overhead linear sprinklers.

Sprinklers are watering organic potatoes on a farm on the Ak-Chin Indian Community. It's a test field using an uncommon technology for Arizona farms, called central pivot sprinklers. It uses about 30 percent less water per acre, according to farm manager Steve Coester.

Coester said in order to use their allocated water as efficiently as possible, they’ve modernized watering on about half their fields.

“And now we’re starting to move toward sprinkler irrigation and drip irrigation, as a matter of just conserving water," Coester said. "Plus it’s much more efficient and yields are increasing.”

Most Arizona farmland still uses flooding. Coester said the reason farmers are reluctant to switch is because installing these new techniques is expensive, sometimes up to $1,000 more per acre.

Alyssa Garcia is a young member of the tribe, and former Miss Indian Arizona, who works on the Ak-Chin farm for the summer. She said carrying on the old farming traditions with new technologies is important to her.

“We’ve been able to really allocate our water and use it as efficiently as we can because it is a sacred resource to us,” Garcia said. 

Garcia works with Leona Kakar who flips through a copy of the water rights settlement between the Ak-Chin and the United States government, which she battled hard for in 1983.

“I think there’s just two of us still alive,” she said, looking for the short list of signatures on the settlement which she's included in.

The settlement work started when she was told the Ak-Chin had to create a council to represent their water interests — so she did.  And then was told she had to fly to Washington, D.C., to negotiate — so she did.

And then, she wouldn’t budge on asking for 50,000 extra acre feet of water to be guaranteed by the federal government. She said negotiations were tense.

“Oh we waited, and we waited, I was getting so nervous and one of them said, 'Well, we’ve discussed this, and we’ve decided and we’ll go ahead and give you the 50,000 extra," she said. "Oh, I was so relieved!”

That boost allowed the community to go from 3,000 to 15,000 acres of farmland, including corn, pecans and cotton.

USDA Research Looks Ahead For Cotton Irrigation In Arizona

Down the street from Ak-Chin, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Arid Land Agriculture Research Center, scientists like Kelly Thorp are studying exactly how much more efficient these sprinklers are.

“We have a diesel engine on board this little cart, running a pump, pulling water out of the canal and delivering it up onto the top pipe running along the lateral above us,” Thorp said, explaining how the irrigation system works.

He's standing in a field being irrigated with an high-tech overhead sprinkler system. As the little green cotton sprouts grow, he’ll measure whether there will be more crop with less water.

For the next generation of crops, these findings could be crucial because of water restrictions.

“Right here in Pinal, I think people are going to get their water cut back next year. Unless something changes, you know,” Coester said.

After 50 years working and managing the farmland, Kakar is ready to turn over the reins. “I’ve done my part, from the ground up," Kakar said. "I did my part getting water here.”

In a university study, sprinkler irrigation in California has had positive results on almost every crop tested. So the Ak-Chin community may be ahead of the game when it comes to efficient crop watering in Arizona.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct how much extra water was given to the Ak-Chin by the United States government.

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