Agricultural water use makes up nearly 80% of total water consumption in the Colorado River basin, with roughly half of that going toward the production of alfalfa hay, according to a 2020 study. One out of every three farmed acres in California’s Imperial Valley is dedicated to growing alfalfa, which dries into a high-protein hay commonly used as food for livestock.
The large-scale production of alfalfa during a megadrought is, in a 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. 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.
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. “We’re irrigating alfalfa in 120-degree temperatures in the dead of July … how does that possibly make any sense?” Schmidt said.
Alfalfa production in California uses around 5 feet an 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 an acre (3,700 cubic metres), and dry beans as little as 1.5 feet each acre (1,850 cubic metres).
Stephen Hawk, a fourth-generation farmer who grows a mix of forage crops and vegetables, decided to scale back production of alfalfa – then his biggest crop. He ramped up production of vegetables like lettuce, onions, carrots and sugar beets. In addition to conserving water, the decision allowed him to diversify revenue streams and practice ground rotation, which comes with soil health benefits.
“We’re ultimately stewards of the land and our resources,” Hawk said. “And our water is our most precious resource.” He added: “There’s a lot of farms that are 100% forage. That’s going to be very difficult for them to continue. When there’s a shortage, they won’t have enough water to farm all their acres.”
Policymakers have imposed various restrictions aimed at curtailing residential water use, including limiting pool sizes and paying people to rip up their lawns. But others argue that municipal conservation measures can only go so far.
“Even if everybody ripped up their lawns and planted native plants that didn’t need to be irrigated, we’re still going to have this problem. We need to address agriculture straight on,” said Amanda Starbuck, research director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group on farming and water issues. “Alfalfa is one of the major crops that is being grown with this water. And it is unfortunately one of the most water-thirsty”.
In 2021, nearly 20% of alfalfa produced in the west was shipped abroad, according to analysis of United States Department of Agriculture data. Nationwide, alfalfa exports reached a record high last year, driven by strong demand from China. Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are among other top importers.