Data Mega-Dump: Alfalfa (Part II)
When you need to cut water use, alfalfa's a good place to start
By now you may have heard that the Colorado River is in trouble, as are the 40 million or so people who rely on it and all the people (and livestock) that eat the crops it irrigates. It’s not the only Western river facing a crisis: The situation on the Klamath is dire and the Rio Grande pretty much dried up this summer, its demise delayed by an abundant monsoon.
The problem is simple: The collective water users are consuming more water than is actually in the river and its tributaries; that is, they are pulling about 14 million acre feet each year out of a river that only has about 12 million acre feet of water in it. And consumption continues to hold steady even as the river continues to shrink, drawing down reserves to a critically low level.
Or to put it in the possibly more relatable terms of a household budget: Spending is remaining constant even as the household income shrinks. The household is running a deficit, in other words, which is rapidly emptying the savings accounts (Lakes Mead and Powell). And, on top of that, the household has outstanding debts (to tribal nations whose senior water rights have yet to be developed, honored or even quantified). The accountants have tapped into retirement accounts (Upper Basin reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa) and imposed temporary cuts (Tier 1 and 2a Shortages) to shore up the savings accounts, but it isn’t enough.
Spending must be dramatically and permanently slashed to better-than-sustainable levels, now, to avert crisis, allow the household to start building back its savings—and, finally, to settle those outstanding debts.
Which is why Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the collective water users in the Colorado River Basin states that they needed to figure out how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of consumption, per year. That’s a whopping amount (Arizona’s total use is less than 2.8 million acre-feet per year). And it may not even be enough. The lower end of those cuts will just about solve the deficit spending, but it won’t be adequate to build up the savings or to settle outstanding debts. Even 4 million acre-feet may not be enough if climate change continues to shrink the river.
So, we—the Colorado River users—must make huge cuts. And that means the biggest users of water (the biggest spenders, to go with our earlier analogy) are going to have to play a major part. The biggest user is agriculture and the thirstiest crop is hay, alfalfa in particular. For High Country News’s Landline I wrote about alfalfa and the need to grow less. This Data Dump is intended to provide some more data to support and supplement that piece. Some of it you’ve seen in previous Data Dumps, but some of it will be new.
But first, a note: I’m not making value judgments here, nor am I “vilifying” a particular crop, as one reader suggested. I’m not saying that alfalfa is somehow less valuable or more wasteful than almonds, or golf courses, or even your daily shower. Remember that alfalfa not only feeds beef cattle, but also dairy cattle (I can’t find reliable stats on how much alfalfa goes to beef vs. dairy—if anyone knows, please tell me!). So if you eat cheese or butter or ice cream, all of which are high on my list of yummy foods, you’re probably eating alfalfa. Nor am I saying that we need to fallow alfalfa fields instead of drying up golf courses or anything else (if it were up to me golf courses and turf lawns would be banned long before alfalfa, and canals covered with solar panels before alfalfa fields).
Cuts are going to have to come from across the board and across every sector. It’s just that as the biggest water user in the Colorado River Basin, alfalfa must play a part (it’s just math). And according to federal agricultural data, farmers are growing less alfalfa in the Colorado River Basin than they were five years ago. That is certainly a beginning.
Now, on to the numbers. For reference: 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. Most of the stats come from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Foreign Agriculture Service and Census of Agriculture.
2 million to 4 million acre-feet Amount of additional cuts—on top of those already made this year and last year under the emergency shortage declarations—Colorado River water users need to make to bring consumption in line with water supplies. That’s enough to fill 1.8 million to 2.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools; or 222,222 Kim Kardashians-worth (see data point below).
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