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Can beer help save an Arizona river?

Arizona has endured two decades of drought, forcing farmers and others there to look for ways to conserve water. In the rural town of Camp Verde, an experimental program is bringing farmers and a malthouse together with the hopes of keeping more water in a local river. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Arizona has been in a state of drought for some two decades. That has helped motivate a search for new ways to conserve water, particularly in agriculture. NewsHour Weekend visited central Arizona to get a first hand look at what some organizations and farmers are doing to transition away from water- intensive crops. Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • Chip Norton:

    We pick up raw grain and we bring that raw barley in here and we clean it. And that's our first step.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In this 3,200 square foot space in the town of Camp Verde in central Arizona, Chip Norton is taking us through the process of malting barley.

  • Chip Norton:

    Here's what the barley looks like right here. It's just like seeds.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Norton is the founder of Sinagua malt. Every week it converts eight thousand pounds of raw barley into malted barley. This process involves soaking the kernels in water to germinate and then drying them to encourage fermentation. This barley is a key ingredient in beer and this plant just might help save the local water supply.

    To understand why that is, you first have to visit the largest body of water in the area – the Verde River.

    The more than 150 mile river runs through central Arizona and supports irrigation of local farms – which are among the heaviest users of water in the area. It also provides water to downstream residents. But effects from long term drought, climate change, and development along its banks threaten its ability to deliver water to millions of people and farms that depend on it.

  • Kimberly Schonek:

    The Verde River is a pretty amazing river and it's very resilient but we have a few places where the flow gets really low and you know it's almost dry.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Kimberly Schonek is the Verde River program director for the non-profit environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy.

  • Kimberly Schonek:

    So what the Conservancy has really been working on is how do we keep this river looking the way it looks. And we wanna restore flow in those places where it is really low and we wanna make sure that flow continues into the future.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And that barley being processed at Sinagua may be part of the solution.

  • Zach Hauser:

    You know, the first year was 15 acres and now were up to 150 acres.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In 2016 the nature conservancy partnered with Zach Hauser and his family on a pilot project. The Hauser's converted some of the conservancy's alfalfa fields to barley with the hope of eventually growing barley on their family land.

  • Zach Hauser:

    We've grown barley before so we know that barley works here.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But repeating that past success was important. Much of the Hauser family's 700 acres were filled with alfalfa and corn, very thirsty crops. If they grew barley on the other hand, they could use about 50 percent less water to irrigate per acre.

    And there would be another benefit.

  • Kimberly Schonek:

    Barley uses water from January through May, but then no irrigation June, July and August and September when the river gets to its lowest.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    This water-use cycle helps conserve water when river flow is reduced. Alfalfa and corn on the other hand require water through the summer.

    But none of that would matter to the Hausers if they couldn't make a profit. Barley is often grown for animal feed – a lower profit venture.

  • Zach Hauser:

    If we can do what we can to conserve water and use as little as possible but still you know, make a good crop and make a profit. You know that's what we're after.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But there was just one problem.

  • Chip Norton:

    There was no craft Malthouse in Arizona. So the farmer would have had to ship the barley all the way to who knows, Idaho, Saskatchewan, wherever to get it malted and then ship it back. The local market is a much better setup for a local farmer.

    That's where Sinagua Malt came in…creating a local market for farmers to sell raw barley.

  • Chip Norton:

    If we could come up with a way to get the barley malted then we would have a market for the farmer.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Barley for malting can make a farm about 200 dollars a ton versus less than 150 for barley grown for feed.

    So in 2017, The Nature Conservancy invested $200,000 to help open Sinagua Malt and secured buy-in from a few local breweries to purchase the malt barley. It registered as a benefit corporation, meaning profits go towards a public or social good, like water conservation, and not just shareholders.

    The project is still in its infancy but 150 acres of barley grown in Camp Verde now supplies thirteen breweries in Arizona. And according to The Nature Conservancy, early results show it saved close to 50 million gallons of water in 2019. That's on top of the 100 million gallons from the previous two years.

  • Chip Norton:

    Sinagua Malt and this crop conversion aren't a silver bullet. But it's an important part of a menu of things that if they're done in a coordinated way will make a difference to keep the Verde River flowing.

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