America’s water-starved ‘salad bowl’ fights for its future

By Marc Heller | 04/02/2024 01:30 PM EDT

As Southwest farmers eye conservation techniques and drought-ready crops, the Biden administration is pouring billions into climate-smart agriculture.

Lettuce growing in uniform rows in Bard, California.

Lettuce growing in uniform rows in Bard, California, bordering southwest Arizona. About 90 percent of the salad greens sold in the U.S. in winter come from this region, where flood irrigation sustains desert agriculture. Marc Heller/POLITICO's E&E News

Part one of a three-part series.

YUMA, Arizona — For a place where nature didn’t intend lettuce to grow, the southwest corner of Arizona has built a spectacular record as “America’s salad bowl.”

Thanks to copious irrigation and decades of public investment, Yuma and the bordering Imperial Valley of California supply as much as 90 percent of the nation’s salad greens during the winter, making the area pivotal to the debate over the future of American agriculture in an era of oppressive weather made worse by the changing climate.


Irrigation-fed lettuce and broccoli grow better here than anywhere else in the country. So growers like the JV Smith Cos., with about 28,000 acres of vegetables in four states and Mexico, stand firmly against the idea that extended drought, extreme heat and water shortages somehow put that desert farming tradition at risk.