How Beer Will Save Western Rivers — Outside Magazine

Verde River near Clarkdale along Sycamore Canyon Road. Photo credit: Wikimedia

From Outside Magazine (Keridwen Cornelius):

Environmental organizations have for years encouraged farmers to convert to barley, which uses about half as much irrigation water as alfalfa and cotton. In the Southwest, this camel of crops could be especially beneficial, because it keeps water in rivers at the right time. Barley is planted in January; irrigated in spring, when rivers are flush; and harvested in June, when water is scarce. Converting just one-tenth of Verde Valley crops to barley would keep 200 million gallons of water flowing in the Verde River each summer.

But farmers have hesitated to switch for a simple reason: money. Barley’s most common use is for animal feed, which is a money-loser. So when [Kim Schonek] was devising a way to save the Verde, she thought of a way to raise local barley prices by pairing farmers with an industry that uses a lot of barley and a lot of water: breweries.

“It’s kind of a new conservation technique,” Schonek says. “Instead of paying farmers every year to reduce the water they’re using, we can create a market that will drive farmers to change their water use.”

Beer-destined barley pays 50 percent more than feed barley, which would definitely help motivate farmers to switch. But the plan had its risks. Most of the barley used in U.S. craft beers comes from Canada and Europe, and Arizona doesn’t have an established barley industry. Schonek would have to make one, and she’d also have to convince farmers that the long-run financial benefits outweighed the financial hit some might take in the transition period. Fortunately, over the previous years, Schonek had created cooperative relationships with farmers in the area and had already persuaded many to replace the inefficient river-diversion gates—which farmers operated by jumping on—with automated gates that saved millions of gallons of water a day. Schonek was currently working with them to transition to drip irrigation. And it was this trust—plus the benefit of the Nature Conservancy’s financial backing—that helped her convince farmers to start Arizona’s first beer barley industry.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

“We care about the river; it’s the only reason there’s farming here in the first place,” says farmer Zach Hauser, whose family owns the largest swath of farmland in the Verde Valley. “We have a huge interest in the health of the river, so anything we can do while still making a living is a win-win.”

Schonek brought in experts to teach the Hausers to grow Harrington two-row barley, and the Nature Conservancy agreed to subsidize any losses during the experimental years. Last season, the Hausers planted 144 acres of barley, some of which was sold to Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. The brewers were so excited to have river-saving local barley that they plan to completely switch.

“Brewing is a water-intensive activity,” says Chase Saraiva, head brewer at Arizona Wilderness. “It’s pretty much a water sport, so we need to be conscious of where our water is coming from and be proactive in taking measures to help in any way we can.”

But there was one missing link: malting. Because there are hardly any malting facilities in the West, they had to malt that first batch of barley in Texas. That’s not sustainable, so Schonek teamed up with Chip Norton, board vice president of Many Rivers Brewing in Colorado, which contributes all of its profits to saving rivers. Together, next month, they will launch Sinagua Malt, a local malting facility that will dedicate profits to river conservation.

When Schonek drove me around the Verde Valley, the elements of the project were nearly in place. The Hausers’ loamy fields were ready to be sown. Next to their barns, plastic-draped malting equipment and a silo of nutty-scented raw barley waited for construction to be completed on the Sinagua Malt warehouse in Camp Verde. “The potential for a market-solution approach to crop conversion exists in lots of tributaries in the Colorado River Basin,” says Norton, holding up a handful of barley. “A lot of people are pretty excited about this, and they’re watching us closely to see if it’ll work as a way to improve stream flow and improve the flow of the Colorado River.”

If the plan works, it will be the first time an environmental organization has created a new market for the purpose of river preservation—and there’s evidence that it’s already making a difference. Last July, Schonek and her family returned to that same five-mile stretch of dry Verde River. This time, they paddled the entire way.

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