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Arizona Farmers Hope Beetles Can Help Kill Water-Devouring Trees Amid Drought

Farmers in Arizona are welcoming beetles that are wiping out a tree, which soaks up huge amounts of water, amid a serious drought and water crisis in the Southwest.

The tamarisk, or salt cedar, tree is a noxious plant that devours large amounts of water and is detrimental to native plants. It was introduced in the United States in 1823 and used to stabilize riverbanks and to prevent erosion, according to the Saltcedar Beetle Project at Sul Ross State University in Texas.

Because of its water-loving capacity, efforts have been made to eradicate the tree, including tree removal and introduction of a beetle that eats tamarisk leaves to kill the plant in portions of the Southwest.

No Tamarisk leaf beetles have been introduced in Arizona, but they have come from Colorado and Utah where they were introduced in the last decade, according to The New York Times in its July 14 edition.

Farmers want the beetles to attack the plants to help reduce the effects of an extended drought by keeping the water from the trees, The Times reported.

However, it isn't clear on what would be the potential water savings from tamarisk removal and restoration of native species, according to the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which manages the water resources along central and southern Arizona's Colorado River.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to about 40 million people.

CAP and other partners are developing a research project to better understand specific water savings from implementing tamarisk removal and restoration.

After flooding affected a Texas tamarisk beetle project in 2008, Sul Ross researchers said the project is now showing results with more than 90 miles of tamarisk defoliated along the Rio Grande River.

Rainfall is needed to turn around drought conditions and its effects including water shortage concerns, Senior Meteorologist Dale Mohler and Western Weather Expert Ken Clark said.

"You always need rain, a little less if it is cooler than normal and a little more if temperatures are above normal," Mohler said. "The reason is evaporation rates increase as temperatures increase and vice versa."

If farmers scale back their crops, it will have an impact on overall water usage if they use irrigation, Mohler said. The CAP provides water for agricultural irrigation districts, but soybean and corn production, both water-intensive crops, is minuscule in the Southwest U.S. as compared to the rest of the country, Mohler said.

The hope for some relief in the later fall and winter time period in the Southwest lies in the prospects for El Niño and its strength, Clark said.

"Latest indications are that we are certainly not looking at a strong El Niño, but more likely a weak to at best moderate event," he said. "This weaker signature means that confidence of significant relief in the drought status is less likely. During weak to moderate El Niño seasons, history has shown a lower correlation between the event and above-normal precipitation."

Story thumbnail: Farmers and others in Arizona are putting their hopes on the tamarisk tree beetle to help eradicate the tree that is thought of as a noxious weed. (Photo/National Park Service)