Data Dump: The alfalfa question

On hay, cheeseburgers, and a cultural landscape built on inefficiency

Alfalfa fields in La Paz County, Arizona. Many of the fields pictured are owned by Fondomonte Farms, a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Arabian food and beverage giant Almarai, which touts itself as the world’s largest vertically integrated dairy company. Almarai boasts that it imports 100% of the feed for its livestock from abroad “to preserve the local water supply.”

Following a recent Land Desk blurb about the newest paper out from the Center for Colorado River Studies about management alternatives for the overused, climate-change-depleted river basin, a reader sent the following comment: 

I thought: Great question and great topic for the weekly Data Dump. It’s also an important one because, as John Fleck, author, former journalist, and director of University of New Mexico’s Water Resource Program, once wrote: “Golf and the Bellagio Fountain are easy targets. But if you’re not talking about alfalfa, you’re not being serious.”

So let’s get serious. Irrigation—primarily for agriculture—uses a ton of water, particularly in the arid states fed by the Colorado River.

This includes total, freshwater withdrawals of both surface water and groundwater by selected category for the entire states, not just the parts fed by the Colorado River. “Public Supply” refers to water withdrawn by public/private water suppliers that provide water to at least 25 people or have a minimum of 15 connections, and can include domestic, commercial, thermoelectric, irrigation, and so forth. “Irrigation” includes not just agricultural water deliveries, but also watering golf courses and parks using non-Public Supply water. The “Mining” category includes oil and gas development, but saline withdrawals—which includes the billions of gallons of “produced” water pumped out of oil and gas wells—are not included here. “Livestock” includes water associated with livestock watering, feeding, and washing; water withdrawn to irrigate feed-crops such as alfalfa is included under “Irrigation.” 1 acre foot = 325,851 gallons. Source: “Estimated use of Water in the United States in 2015,” USGS.

Happily, a lot of the more intricate data-wrangling concerning Colorado River use has been done for us. Back in 2013, the Pacific Institute published “Water to Supply the Land: Irrigated Agriculture in the Colorado River Basin.” In it, the authors conclude: 

More than ninety percent of pasture and cropland in the basin receives supplemental water to make the land viable for agriculture. This irrigated land extends across some 3.2 million acres within the basin, while water exported from the basin reportedly helps irrigate another 2.5 million acres in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and southern California. Irrigating this much land requires a lot of water, consuming roughly 70 percent of the basin’s water supply (not including evaporation or exports). 

They go on to find that forage—mostly in the form of alfalfa hay—takes up more acreage than any other crop in the Colorado River Basin. Given the fact that alfalfa is relatively thirsty, it’s fair to conclude that alfalfa is gulping up a hefty portion of Colorado River water.

This data is somewhat out of date. The Pacific Institute report came out in 2013 and relies in part on the 2007 agricultural census (completed every five years). While most of the Colorado River Basin states have seen decreases in acreage devoted to agriculture since then, they have also gained alfalfa-planted acreage. Hay production has gone up significantly in Arizona and Utah alongside a steep climb in hay exports. Yes, a lot of that water-guzzling alfalfa is going to feed cattle and horses in China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and elsewhere.

Also of note: In 2020 Utah, alone, exported alfalfa hay valued at $124 million. Data sources: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and USDA Agricultural Census.

In Arizona, urban sprawl—and its attendant swimming pools, golf courses, and those thirsty green lawns—has spilled onto former citrus orchards around Phoenix. Meanwhile new alfalfa farms have popped up in more rural areas such as La Paz County, which lies along the California border and the algae-choked leftovers of the Colorado River. In other words, grapefruit trees gave way, indirectly, to cheeseburgers, since most alfalfa ends up feeding dairy and beef cattle, in the U.S. and abroad.

While Arizona lost 10 million acres of farmland since 1987 and Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, lost nearly 1 million, the number of acres devoted to hay has almost doubled.

The simple takeaway is that, collectively, alfalfa fields from Wyoming to Arizona make up one of the biggest water sinks in the West and are putting a strain on the imperiled Colorado River system.

The complicated part: What the hell to do about it? 

The Colorado River watershed, along with the dams, diversions, canals, and tunnels that have been imposed upon it, has often been compared to a giant plumbing system. Which would mean that the group of people who manage and oversee its various components are like plumbers, whose job it is to find and fix leaks, to direct the water to where it’s most useful, and to maximize efficiency. Looking at it this way, paying the alfalfa farmers not to irrigate—a.k.a. “buy and dry” (permanent) or “alternative water transfers” (temporary or intermittent)—would seem to be the most direct way to put a lot of water back into the dwindling river system. 

But if the Colorado River is plumbing, it’s got some tangled up pipes and the plumbers working on it have far more than just efficiency to worry about. Before they can even consider plugging leaks or reducing waste, the plumbers must navigate a tangled web of water law, politics, interstate competition, intrastate water wars, history, culture, and values. And they must consider the unexpected ways maximizing efficiency can ripple across landscapes and cultures in good ways and bad. 

Having spent most of my life in rural Western farming country, I cringe when I see water spilled carelessly onto a hayfield. At the same time I’m enamored with the smell that fills the air after the first cutting of hay in early June, the geometry of a row of hay-bales casting long shadows on a summer’s eve, and even the peculiar pull of gravity when hefting a bale into the back of a truck. Buying and drying alfalfa farms would free up water to send to cities or to leave in streams, but what would become of the fallow fields? Would nature reclaim them? Or would they be overrun by houses or strip malls or dollar stores? Significant water savings could be realized by putting leaky ditches into pipes. But it would also kill off the ecosystems that have cropped up as a result of the leaks. Those cottonwood-shaded cattail groves that rely on a steady stream of seepage would wither away. It seems strange to say, but much of the rural West’s current landscape and culture has been built upon water inefficiency.

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Saving water doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, however. The authors of the Pacific Institute report found that by switching from alfalfa to, say, sorghum, farmers could keep their land in agriculture while also saving water. Ditto if they switched from flood irrigation, which is so prevalent in the arid West, to more efficient means. And even by practicing RDI, or regulated deficiency irrigation,* alfalfa farmers across the Colorado River Basin could save a whopping 970,000 acre feet of water per year. The answers are out there, but finding and implementing them will take innovation and some degree of sacrifice. But maybe, just maybe, we can have our efficiency and eat our cheeseburger, too. 

*Regulated Deficiency Irrigation: watering less than the seasonal evapotranspiration needs of the crop. That is, you put the crop on a water diet by giving it less water than it uses. Studies have found that alfalfa remains 80 percent productive even when getting about half the water.