Farmers, Brewers, and Conservationists Partner to Keep a River Flowing

Businessman and river enthusiast Chip Norton aims to create a market for barley in the Verde Valley of central Arizona in order to supply local breweries with malt and to keep more flow in the Verde River. Photo: Sandra Postel


By Sandra Postel and Todd Reeve

The fact that a pint of beer requires a whopping 37 gallons (140 liters) of water to produce can turn a favorite beverage into a guilty pleasure.

But what if, instead, each hoppy sip helped add flow to a depleted river?

If all goes according to plan that will soon happen in Arizona’s Verde River, a flowing gem in the Colorado River Basin and a lifeline for fish, birds and wildlife in the American Southwest. But like many western rivers, the Verde flows low, and in some stretches not at all, during the hot summer months, when farmers divert water to irrigate crops.

And that gave Chip Norton, a retired businessman and river enthusiast, an idea: switch a portion of the valley’s farmland from crops like corn that are thirstiest in summer to barley, which grows earlier in the year and so requires much less water when the river is stressed. Then use the barley to make malt, a key ingredient of beer, and sell it to local craft brewers. In this way the Verde gets more summertime flow, farmers get access to local markets, and breweries get homegrown, high-quality malt for their product.

It’s a creative response to a conundrum conservationists like Kim Schonek, who manages the Verde River program for the Nature Conservancy of Arizona, face time and again: “How do you do something for the local community that’s good for the river,” she asks, “but not ‘buy-and-dry’?”

Schonek is referring to the practice of purchasing irrigated farmland to obtain the associated water rights. With “buy and dry,” the river gets more water, but the agricultural land often dries up, costing the local economy jobs and revenue.

Through Norton and Schonek’s crop-switching plan, healthier rivers have a chance to flow alongside prosperous farms, creating local jobs rather than sacrificing them.

Kim Schonek with the Nature Conservancy of Arizona works with farmers to modernize irrigation systems so as to sustain the rivers and streams of the Verde Valley, including West Clear Creek, a tributary to the Verde River. Photo: Sandra Postel
Kim Schonek with the Nature Conservancy of Arizona works with farmers to modernize irrigation systems so as to sustain the rivers and streams of the Verde Valley, including West Clear Creek, a tributary to the Verde River. Photo: Sandra Postel

In mid-February, Schonek and Norton took us to a new field of barley that was already greening up the Verde Valley. The young grasses stood several inches tall. Last year this acreage had been planted in feed corn, which consumed 3.5 acre-feet of water per acre during May to July. (An acre-foot is the volume that results from spreading water one foot deep over an acre of land, or roughly 326,000 gallons.) Corn grown in the valley needs the most water in June, “when the river has the least available,” Norton said.

While the barley requires about 3 acre-feet of water per acre, not much less than the corn, much of that water comes from the moisture stored in the soil after winter rains. Less than half comes from irrigation. And since it’s a cooler-season crop, the barley will be harvested in June, before the Verde’s flow drops to its summer lows.

If just one-tenth of the valley’s 6,000 acres of cropland could be converted to barley, summertime irrigation demand would drop by nearly 200 million gallons, keeping critical flow in the river when it’s needed most.

Zach Hauser, a farmer in his mid-twenties who helps run Hauser and Hauser Farms, is committed to developing solutions to make his farming more efficient and that benefit the river. Zach and his father Kevin are shifting 144 acres into barley, and planting 35 acres in carrots, another crop that’s harvested in June. To cut his demand for irrigation water even further, Hauser is putting 70 acres, including his carrots, under drip irrigation this year, which will bring his total under drip to 81 acres. Instead of flooding those fields, he will deliver just the volume of water the crops need through a highly efficient, moveable drip system.

Meanwhile, Norton aims to build a malt house in the town of Camp Verde through a benefit corporation called Sinagua Malt, named after a prehistoric people who thrived in the region from 500 A.D.-1300 A.D. The malt house will give farmers like Hauser a local outlet for their barley that generates profits similar to other commodity crops.

The plan is for Sinagua to purchase the raw barley, process it into malt, and then sell it to local craft brewers. Arizona Wilderness, a craft brewery in Gilbert, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of Phoenix, has already agreed to purchase malt from Sinagua. As a benefit corporation, Sinagua will dedicate profits to river conservation.

The shift to new cropping patterns and the installation of drip irrigation continues a transformation to smarter water use in the Verde Valley that began several years ago when the Conservancy partnered with local irrigators to install automated head-gates on ditch systems. The modernized infrastructure enables irrigators to take just the water they need and leave the rest for the river. (Watch a video on these efforts.)

Today the Verde’s summertime flow is about twice what it was before.

Zach Hauser is converting acreage from flood to drip irrigation to conserve water for the Verde River. Hauser’s new machinery helps move the drip lines to irrigate his vegetables. Photo: Sandra Postel
Zach Hauser is converting fields from flood to drip irrigation to conserve water for the Verde River. Hauser’s new machinery helps move the drip lines to irrigate his vegetables. Photo: Sandra Postel

Change the Course, the national water restoration initiative we co-created, has partnered with The Nature Conservancy of Arizona and other conservation groups in the Verde Valley to contribute funding from corporations eager to balance their own water footprints by restoring flows to rivers in need, like the Verde. Such corporate support, along with a grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped Hauser purchase his drip irrigation equipment, and has helped Schonek improve infrastructure throughout the valley. Coca-Cola, Cox, Disney and Waste Management are among the companies that have committed to support restoration projects in the Verde that maximize the benefits that come from meeting the water needs of rivers, communities, and farms.

In a similar way, Change the Course is partnering with the Tucson-based Arizona Land and Water Trust to help shift farmland along southern Arizona’s San Pedro River from thirsty cotton to drought-tolerant native grasses for cattle to graze. Like the Verde, the San Pedro provides critical habitat for migratory birds and wildlife, but shrinks to a trickle from heavy groundwater pumping that depletes its flow during the drier months. As in the Verde, switching to a different crop can benefit the river while keeping agricultural land in production. (Read about a rancher helping to restore the San Pedro.)

The potential for crop switching to benefit rivers and local economies in water-stressed regions like the western United States has barely been tapped. As projects in the Verde and San Pedro show, it often takes creative partnerships among farmers, businesses, agencies and conservation groups to make it happen.

But as the Verde River flows stronger, the town of Camp Verde and the local economy are reaping the benefits.

“Over the last three to four years, the increase in boaters on the Verde has been huge,” said Schonek. “To have recreation and tourism, you need to take care of the river.”


Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, a National Geographic Explorer, and author of the forthcoming book Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity  (Island Press). Todd Reeve is CEO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.  They are co-creators of Change the Course.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Laurel Lacher

    This is fabulous! Way to go Chip and Kim for continuing to think outside the box. Farmers across AZ are starting to move to the model of growing in non-summer months. Makes loads of sense!

  • Dustin


    Your initial comment that it takes “37 gallons” to produce a pint of beer is wildly inaccurate. I am not sure where you got this information from, but it is most certainly false.

    While water and waste water usage is an issue all brewers should be cognizant of, the most recent findings from the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable studies have found that usage has actually been decreasing year after year. While several years ago, it was closer to a 7:1 (Liter/Liter) rate, it has dropped to as low as 4.5:1 (L/L) as an industry average.

    As more and more brewers are responsibly tracking their usage and wastewater processes, we can always be improving and are certainly always seeking to do so. The Brewers Association is always a good resource for information like this, as brewers generally try to be as responsible as possible.

    Unless you were lumping in other costs associated with raw material production, such as barley and hops etc… (which you did not denote), I find it very frustrating to have such a shock value number attached to the brewing industry so loosely.

    I very much appreciate what the article is about with regards to sustainability and fully support the efforts of the farmers as well as you bringing issues like this to people’s attention, however, it would be nice to have clarification on your numbers and sources.

    • Dustin, thank you for your comment. The largest component of the consumptive water use of beer is in growing the barley and hops. The most consistent data base on the water footprint of various products (including beer) is that of the Water Footprint Network (based in the Netherlands), specifically their product gallery: http://waterfootprint.org/en/resources/interactive-tools/product-gallery/. You are absolutely correct that many brewers have reduced the water requirements of producing beer within their own facilities; many fewer, however, have focused on the whole supply chain, including the production of the main ingredients in the field. Our piece is about the consumptive water requirements of barley, so of course in this case we present the number for the complete water footprint of beer. Especially with products derived from agricultural crops (e.g., cotton shirts, beer), it’s important to look beyond the four walls of the manufacturing/production facility and consider the water requirements of each stage of the process to get a proper understanding of that product’s complete water footprint. Again, thank you for your comment.

  • Kayo Parsons-Korn

    Sandra is right, if you look at the water requirements of the crops that produce the beer, it takes a LOT of water. Initially some folks here in Arizona wanted to grow hops too so they could have a total “farm to table” product. But hops grow in the summer, and from my own backyard hop growing experience, I can say that growing hops in Arizona is not going to save the rivers. Hops are better grown in Oregon and Washington where there is ample rainfall. But barley can take advantage of our winter rains here. If farmers can make a profit from barley they can retire summer thirsty crops like corn and alfalfa. Congratulations to Chip and Kim for coming up with such an elegant plan.

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