‘Water is our most precious resource’: alfalfa farmers asked to give up crop amid megadrought in US south-west
Agriculture – mainly alfalfa – consumes 80% of the Colorado River’s dwindling water supply, prompting calls for conservation efforts
On an early August morning in California’s Imperial Valley, tractors rumble across verdant fields of alfalfa, mowing down the tall grass and leaving it to dry in shaggy heaps under the hot sun.
Here, in one of the oldest farming communities in the Colorado River basin, the forage crop is king. One out of every three farmed acres in the valley is dedicated to growing alfalfa, which dries into a high-protein hay commonly used as food for livestock.
The plant looms large in the desert south-west, not only because it’s the region’s biggest crop but also because it’s one of the thirstiest – its deep roots suck up water in a region scorched by a 22-year drought.
The large-scale production of alfalfa during a megadrought is, in large part, possible because the Imperial Valley is the single biggest controller of rights to Colorado River water. Now, with the basin on the brink of the most severe water cuts in history, the alfalfa industry has been propelled to the center of longstanding debates over sustainable water use and the future of farming in the west.
‘Teetering on the edge’: a dwindling water supply
The stakes have never been higher. The Colorado River, which supplies freshwater to more than 40 million people in seven states and 29 federally recognized tribes across the south-west, as well as northern Mexico, is in rapid decline. Reduced snowpack, drought conditions and higher average temperatures have all reduced the river’s flow in recent decades.
The two biggest reservoirs along the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are each close to hitting levels so low that the Colorado River could stop flowing entirely, a condition ominously known as dead pool. “We’re teetering on the edge,” said Jack Schmidt, a professor and director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University.
The dire circumstances have cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the Imperial Valley’s alfalfa industry, which is not only one of the largest water users in the basin, but one of the most powerful. Farmers have faced growing criticism for what some have characterized as the “perverse” practice of growing a thirsty crop – none of which goes directly to feeding people – in a drought-stricken region.
“We’re irrigating alfalfa in 120-degree temperatures in the dead of July … how does that possibly make any sense?” Schmidt said.
Trevor Tagg, who runs a 3,000-acre (1,200ha) farm in Imperial Valley focused on forage crops, knows this criticism all too well but says he finds it frustrating. “Our country is so disconnected from our food supply chain,” said Tagg. “People don’t know what alfalfa is or what it’s even used for. So it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, we don’t eat that. So get rid of it’”.
Forage crops are part of a larger food system that includes the beef and dairy industries both in the US and abroad, Tagg said. He believes some issues – such as the rapid development of cities – should bear just as much scrutiny for water use. “Look at Vegas, Phoenix, Orange county and San Diego,” he said, cities that have undergone significant growth. “Every time that there’s ever been water needed in the metropolitan areas, they’ve always come into the ag areas,” he said.
Farmers in the south-west have long been drawn to alfalfa because of its reliability. The crop stores well and enjoys steady demand. But while alfalfa remains a dominant crop in the Imperial Valley, thanks to the region’s stable water supply, acreage dedicated to production across California has fallen significantly over the past two decades, in part due to the rising cost of water.
According to an analysis by the conservation non-profit Pacific Institute, alfalfa production in California uses around 5 feet per acre (6167.4 cubic metres) of water, making it one of the most water-intensive crops alongside the likes of almonds, pistachios and rice. Crops such as sugar beets use roughly 3 feet per acre (3,700 cubic metres), and dry beans as little as 1.5 feet per acre (1,850 cubic metres).