“For decades, leaders [in the Southwest] have sought a way to equitably share what’s left of the shrinking supply, but there has always been one stubborn sticking point,” writes Stephen Robert Miller in FERN’s latest story. “Farmers consume three-quarters of the region’s precious water, often to grow thirsty, inedible crops like cotton and hay. Many of them have been here for a century or more, and they aren’t about to leave. So, why can’t they grow something that sucks less water?
“Outside Eloy, I drove past miles of empty fields riddled with Land for Sale signs. These farms had been hit hard by recent cutbacks in the delivery of Colorado River water, upon which they had relied since the 1980s. Those who were still in the game were scraping by and bracing for more rationing. Eventually, I came to a chain-link gate with a warning: “Watch out for snakes.” Behind it, I found a 300-acre desert laboratory operated by the Japanese-owned Bridgestone Corporation where a small team was toiling away, in some sense, on the same question.
“The compound was nothing like the farms of fluffy cotton and bright green alfalfa I was used to seeing in central Arizona. A ring of barbed wire contained a stucco building with offices, meeting rooms, and a greenhouse where geneticists in white coats peered through microscopes. Out back, rows of ragged shrubs grew at varying heights. This was guayule (pronounced why-oo-lee), a plant native to Southwestern deserts that happens to produce latex. From this unassuming outpost, Bridgestone was trying to establish the country’s sole domestic source for the kind of high-grade natural rubber used in airplane tires and surgical gloves — and they were doing it with a crop accustomed to drought.”