For four Indian tribes that grow melons, wheat, cotton, onions and alfalfa near the Colorado River, fallowing cropland will bring extra money. It will also get the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ name out as a water player, part of the solution to the Southwest’s water shortages.

And, says Tribal Councilwoman Amelia Flores, it’s a way to get other cropland into production and to upgrade their irrigation equipment.

The tribes are starting a federally financed fallowing program this year to save water for Lake Mead. They are among many looking more closely at fallowing as a way of coping with tightening water supplies.

Farmers from the Colorado to the Rio Grande are temporarily leasing water to cities and in a few cases to the federal government. While some of the deals are highly complex, the basic principle is simple.

Farmers get money, often to upgrade drill rigs, irrigation works and other equipment. Agencies get water, sometimes for themselves, other times to store in Lake Mead — an important reservoir that serves water to Tucson and Phoenix.

The practice is at least 20 years old in this region, but has gained steam recently as concerns have grown over the health of Mead due to drought and a long-term water deficit there.

Backers say fallowing is an alternative to “buy and dry,” in which farmland is permanently extinguished so thirsty cities can support future growth. But even temporary fallowing can be controversial. Some farming advocates say it should be done only to help those who buy or lease water rights through temporary shortfalls caused by droughts or other emergencies.

At a recent conference and workshop in Tucson, more than a half-dozen farmers, farming advocates and irrigation district officials shared stories, hopes and concerns about fallowing.

Fallowing “has the potential to be a huge factor” in protecting Lake Mead, said Brad Udall, a Colorado State University water researcher who organized the Tucson workshop.

Practices also include replacing water-sucking alfalfa with less-thirsty fruits and vegetables and “deficit irrigation” that reduces or halts irrigation. During recent dry summers, these practices helped keep the Colorado River out of shortage , Udall said.

But Dan Keppen, director of the Family Farm Alliance, an advocacy group, said farmers often initially resist fallowing programs, though they’re sometimes forced into them.

“One of the program’s biggest challenges is the divide that fallowing creates in a community. Certain individuals will benefit from the outside money. Those members of a community who rely on having acreage in production are the most affected and have the most anti-fallowing voices,” Keppen told a gathering of 375 at a University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center conference.

“By the same token, sometimes folks feel they’ve got to be realistic: ‘We cooperate and stay in business, or we fight and lose.’”

Some examples of fallowing include:

  • The Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County near El Centro, California, will finish a 15-year program in June in which the San Diego Water Authority has paid its farmers $140 million to keep 50,000 acres out of production and save 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water for urban use. That’s what the Central Arizona Project delivers to Tucson and other Arizona cities and farms in a year. Imperial controls the biggest share of Colorado River water —about 3.1 million acre-feet a year.
  • The Colorado River Indian Tribes, based near Parker, Arizona, are starting their three-year, pilot fallowing program financed by the Bureau of Reclamation later this year. It’s part of what’s called a regional “system conservation” program in which the feds pay farmers and other water users across the river basin. The four tribes, joint owners of a nearly 270,000-acre reservation, hope to conserve about 15,400 acre-feet per year by fallowing 1,590 acres.
  • The Palo Verde Irrigation District near Blythe, California, is “the poster child” for farm-to-urban water transfers, said Jack Seiler, a district trustee. It’s in the middle of a 35-year deal, ending in 2039, with Southern California’s giant Metropolitan Water District to fallow up to nearly 26,000 acres a year. The Met has bought 7,300 acres of district land. It pays owners of the other fallowed lands $3,170 an acre to enter the program and an annual, escalating fee now at about $800 per acre.
  • In southern New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District along the Rio Grande is going through environmental reviews for a major fallowing program to start in 2018. As it’s planned, farmers and cities in the lower Rio Grande in New Mexico and West Texas would ink forbearance agreements. Farmers wouldn’t pump groundwater onto fallowed cropland and would use their surface water on other parcels or lease that surface water to other farmers to use to replace groundwater.
  • Just west of Yuma, Southern California’s Bard Water District is in its second year of fallowing Colorado River water for the Metropolitan Water District. The Met pays farmers $300 an acre and the water district another $100 per acre. At this point, it’s not known how much water the district has saved.

As the programs typically work, farmers can only fallow land that has been in production for a significant percentage of the previous few years before the fallowing starts. They typically don’t fallow land every year; it’s often fallowed two to four out of five years.

University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, who has written extensively about water issues, sees fallowing as one of many tools to save water. But in researching his 2009 book “Unquenchable” about water, he found both positives and negatives in fallowing programs.

The Imperial water deal with San Diego gave the district money to line many of its irrigation canals and fix the canals’ headgates, he said. The idea was that once the improvements were made, the district could bring the 50,000 acres it had fallowed back into production.

“I think that’s terrific. You have to have the endgame of keeping rural communities vibrant over the long term,” Glennon said.

He was less supportive, however, of the Palo Verde-Metropolitan Water District arrangement. The original fallowing deal “was a smoking deal” for farmers — “who wouldn’t grab this opportunity?” — but that didn’t mean it was good for the Blythe community, he said.

The money the district’s farmers get each year from the Met “was way more than the farmers could make growing alfalfa,” Glennon said.

“But where the lands will be fallowed, the farmers not only lose their jobs, but the John Deere dealers won’t have as much equipment to sell. The lawyers and accountants and restaurants lost money,” he said.

Paula Hayden, the district’s fallowing coordinator, said she doesn’t think the fallowing has hurt the surrounding community’s economy. The Met put $6 million into a community fund to help the region cope with fallowing. For farms, the fallowing saved quite a few of them because of the $3,170 monthly bonus they got, she said.

“I’ll tell you this,” she said. “The valley farmers were pretty happy with it. The community overall is better off.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987