‘Water is our most precious resource’: Alfalfa growers urged to abandon crops due to mega-drought in the US Southwest | Water

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On an early August morning in California’s Imperial Valley, tractors rumble through verdant fields of alfalfa, mowing tall grasses and leaving them to dry in shaggy piles in the scorching sun.

Here, in one of the oldest farming communities in the Colorado River basin, forage farming is king. One on three Cultivated acres in the valley are devoted to growing alfalfa, which dries into a protein-rich hay commonly used as livestock feed.

The plant is prominent in the desert southwest, not only because it is the largest crop in the region, but also because it is one of the most thirsty – its deep roots suck up water in a region scorched by a 22-year drought.

Large-scale alfalfa production during a mega-drought is, in large part, possible because the Imperial Valley is the only the greatest Colorado River Water Rights Controller. Today, with the basin on the brink of the most severe water cuts in history, the alfalfa industry has been thrust into the center of longstanding debates over sustainable water use and the future of agriculture in the west.

“On the brink”: a dwindling water supply

The stakes have never been higher. The Colorado River, which provides fresh water to more than 40 million people in seven states and 29 federally recognized tribes in the southwest, as well as northern Mexico, is in rapid decline. Reduced snow cover, drought conditions, and higher average temperatures have all reduced the flow of the river in recent decades.

The two largest reservoirs along the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are each close to reaching levels so low that the Colorado River could stop flowing altogether, a worrying condition. known as dead pool. “We’re teetering on the edge,” said Jack Schmidt, professor and director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University.

Lake Powell is no longer surrounded by water. More than two decades of severe drought have left the Colorado River at critical levels. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The dire circumstances have cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the Imperial Valley alfalfa industry, which is not only one of the largest users of water in the basin, but one of the most powerful. Farmers have been increasingly criticized for what some have called “pervertthe 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 middle of July…how does that make sense?” said Schmidt.

Trevor Tagg, who operates a 3,000-acre (1,200 ha) farm in the Imperial Valley focused on forage crops, knows the criticism all too well, but says he finds it frustrating. “Our country is so disconnected from our food supply chain,” Tagg said. “People don’t know what alfalfa is or what it’s used for. So it’s very easy to say, “Oh, we’re not eating that.” So get rid of it”.

Forage crops are part of a larger food system that includes the beef and dairy industries in the United States and abroad, Tagg said. He thinks that certain issues – such as the rapid development of cities – should be given equal scrutiny for water use. “Look at Vegas, Phoenix, Orange County and San Diego,” he said, cities that have seen significant growth. “Whenever there have been water needs in metropolitan areas, they have always come to agricultural areas,” he said.

Southwestern farmers have long been drawn to alfalfa because of its reliability. The crop keeps well and enjoys constant demand. But while alfalfa remains a dominant crop in the Imperial Valley, thanks to the region’s stable water supply, the acreage devoted to production throughout California has increased dramatically. fallen over the past two decades, in part due to rising cost of water.

According to a analysis by the non-profit conservation organization Pacific Institute, California alfalfa production uses about 5 feet per acre (6167.4 cubic meters) of water, making it one of the most water-intensive crops along with almonds, pistachios and rice. Crops such as sugar beets use about 3 feet per acre (3,700 cubic meters) and dry beans as little as 1.5 feet per acre (1,850 cubic meters).

A whitewashed
The drying up of the Colorado River basin has raised questions about the equitable distribution of dwindling water resources. Photography: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

‘We need to tackle agriculture head-on’: find new crops to conserve water resources

In the Imperial Valley, some farmers have already taken steps to save water by switching to less water-intensive crops.

About five years ago, Stephen Hawk, a fourth-generation farmer who grows a mix of forage crops and vegetables, decided to cut back on alfalfa production – then his biggest crop.

He increased the production of vegetables like lettuce, onions, carrots and sugar beets. In addition to conserving water, this decision allowed her to diversify her sources of income and practice soil rotation, which has benefits for soil health. Today, he estimates that less than half of his farm is devoted to forage crops like alfalfa.

“Ultimately, we are stewards of the land and our resources,” Hawk said. “And our water is our most precious resource.” He added: “There are a lot of farms that are 100% forage. It will be very difficult for them to continue. If there is a shortage, they will not have enough water to cultivate their entire hectare.

As the Colorado River crisis has deepened over the past two decades, a divide has emerged between municipal and agricultural interests over how to fairly allocate a dwindling resource.

According to a 2020 study study. But growers the Guardian spoke to said all basin residents, not just farmers, should bear some of the brunt of water conservation.

In recent years, policy makers have imposed various restrictions aimed at reducing residential water use, including limit the size of swimming pools and pay people to tear up their lawns. But others argue that municipal conservation measures can go no further.

“Even if everyone ripped up their lawn and planted native plants that didn’t need irrigation, we’d still have this problem. We need to tackle agriculture directly,” said Amanda Starbuck, research director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group for agriculture and water issues. “Alfalfa is one of the main crops grown with this water. And it is unfortunately one of the most water-thirsty”.

“There will not be enough water:” a thirsty export culture and global food supply chains

Environmental organizations have further criticized growers in the basin for exporting a significant portion of their alfalfa harvest to countries in the Middle East and Asia, which has been assimilated by some as “shipping water” overseas from some of the country’s most water-scarce states.

Alfalfa ready for cutting in North Carolina.
Alfalfa is one of the most water-intensive crops. Nearly 20% is exported to Asia and the Middle East. Photography: Aliyah

In 2021, nearly 20% of alfalfa produced in the West has been shipped overseas, according to analysis of data from the United States Department of Agriculture. Nationally, alfalfa exports hit a record high last year, boosted by strong demand from China. Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are among the other main importers.

But farmers in the region argue that producers in the Southwest cannot simply refuse to participate in a global food system, which also serves the United States – the world’s second largest agricultural importer after China.

“What people don’t understand is whether we like it or not, we’re interconnected in the food supply chain,” Tagg said. “The fodder products that we produce here are used to feed cattle, sheep or poultry in all these other countries. We can’t just starve people because countries don’t have the infrastructure to feed themselves.

What farmers and conservationists tend to agree on is that adapting to a future of water scarcity requires a substantial reassessment of the current food system and that funding can be an incentive useful to help growers switch to more water-efficient crops.

“There shouldn’t be a saying about cultivated crops,” said Maurice Hall, vice president of climate-resilient water systems for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Having said that…helping to create alternative markets, providing equipment and providing incentives so that the economic balance sheet makes more sense for them to grow low water crops makes sense.”

States are considering proposals this would pay farmers to use less water, helping them to cope with the financial losses associated with reduced production. The funding could come from the inflation and climate bill that President Biden signed into law in August, which includes $4 billion for water conservation initiatives in the Colorado River Basin.

In other parts of the basin, some farmers are finding ways to farm with much less water.

Faced with shortages this year that have reduced their water to just a third of their normal allotment, Landon and Brian Wilson, a father and son duo from Dolores County, Colorado, chose to plant a forage mix on some of their fields rather than letting it dry. The mix includes varieties of wheat, barley, oats, rye and peas and uses about half the water of pure alfalfa. “We had to continually adjust to what would work for us financially, as well as the water level,” Landon said.

It’s the kind of change farmers say they all may have to make in the years to come – if not by choice, at least by eventual necessity.

“I saw how dry everything is,” Hawk said. “One day, there won’t be enough water…. Our land is worth nothing if we don’t have the water to cultivate it.

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