Data Mega-Dump: Alfalfa (Part II) — @Land_Desk #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Hayfield in Orderville, Utah, irrigated with water from the East Fork of the Virgin River, a Colorado River tributary. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

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. If climate change continues to shrink the river even 4 million acre-feet may not be enough. 

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.

“Natural Flow” is a calculation of how much water would flow in the Colorado River without any withdrawals or reservoir evaporation. In other words, it’s the amount of water available for use. The 1922 Colorado River Compact assumed that there would be at least 15 million acre feet running past Lee’s Ferry. Over the last two decades it’s averaged in the 12 MAF to 13 MAF range—and falling. Source: USBR
For the life of me, I cannot find a more updated version of the breakdown of consumptive uses in the entire Colorado River Basin. The USBR has Consumptive Use and Losses reports for the Upper Basin up to 2020 (see below); and “accounting reports” for the Lower Basin, which break use down by irrigation district, but not sector. So I’m relying on this. (If any readers have more up to date breakdowns, send them my way!). Total consumptive use has dropped to between 13 million and 14 million af and agriculture continues to use the lion’s share of the water. Source: USBR.

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).

244,635 acre-feet Amount of Colorado River water Nevada is forecast to use this year, nearly all of which goes to Las Vegas and neighboring cities. The state’s water users withdraw about 450,000 acre feet from Lake Mead, but then return about 230,000 acre-feet in the form of treated wastewater via the Las Vegas Wash.

39 Number of golf courses in Las Vegas

459 acre-feet Average annual water used to irrigate a golf course in the Southwest, according to the U.S. Golf Association. 

300 Number of golf courses in Arizona, according to Golf Arizona.

921 Number of golf courses in California.

3.18 million gallons per acre (9.76 af) Amount of water needed per year to keep grass alive in the Mojave Desert. That’s about twice as much as what alfalfa requires.

13,455 square feet Size of an Olympic-size swimming pool, which holds 1.8 acre feet of water.  

600 square feet Maximum size of a swimming pool in Las Vegas’ new building code, which SNWA says will save 32 million gallons of water over the next decade. 

470 square feet Average size of a Las Vegas residential swimming pool, but some are over 3,000 square feet. 

2.2 million Approximate number of residential swimming pools of all sizes in the seven Colorado River Basin states.

232,000 Gallons of water over the maximum limit Kim Kardashian used at her L.A. property in June (about .7 acre-feet). If she were to continue that rate of excessive use she’d consume about 9 acre-feet per year—or twice as much as alfalfa.

145 million gallons Daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. 

Okay, those numbers are there to give some perspective, and to show that, yes, golf and lawns and soccer and football fields and coal power plants and Los Angeles celebrities use a bunch of water. And now let’s look at alfalfa:

This is the breakdown of water use for the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico) only. Agriculture guzzles the lion’s share of the water, as you can see. You may also notice that the Upper Basin uses less water than California, alone. That may seem unfair, but it’s how the Colorado River Compact was set up: The Upper Basin states aren’t guaranteed a set amount, they just get what’s left over after delivering 7.5 MAF per year to the Lower Basin. Lately that has not been very much. USBR.
The Imperial Irrigation District is by far the biggest single water user on the Colorado River, consuming about 850 billion gallons per year, nearly all of which is used for agriculture in the Imperial Valley. As much as one-third of that water was used to irrigate alfalfa, based on 2017 USDA agriculture census figures. *This figure for the Southern Nevada Water System does not account for Las Vegas Wash return flows, which are subtracted from this amount (to arrive at a net total of about 245,000 af). USBR.

2 to 6 acre-feet
Amount of water needed annually to irrigate an acre of alfalfa, depending on location and climate. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley alfalfa consumes about 2 acre-feet per year, while in California’s Imperial Valley it can be a bit more than 6 acre-feet annually. Most other places fall somewhere in between.

4.1 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Utah, Arizona and Colorado in 2017.

2.7 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in those three states planted with alfalfa and other hay crops.

3 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Western states (including the Colorado River Basin) planted with alfalfa grown for forage (hay), grazing or seed in 2022.

18,000 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in in San Juan County, New Mexico, in 2022, all of which relies on water from Colorado River tributaries for irrigation.

76,070 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in the San Luis Valley in Colorado in 2022. Fields here are irrigated with water from the Rio Grande, which dried out in Albuquerque this year.

85,795 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in Imperial County, California, this year, consuming as much as 510,000 acre feet of Colorado River water—more than twice as much as the entire Las Vegas metro area’s yearly consumptive use. Imperial County has come to be known as the hottest county in the nation.

139 Number of Imperial County farms on which more than 500 acres of alfalfa was grown in 2017.

88,252 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa this year in Maricopa County, Arizona, home of Phoenix.

90,000 acres Amount of photovoltaic solar panels needed to equal the generating capacity of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, according to a 2021 MIT/Stanford study.

1.73 million metric tons Amount of hay shipped overseas via San Francisco and Los Angeles ports in 2021. This amounts to 50 million gallons of water, according to rough calculations based on 240 lbs of water/ton of hay.

$880 million Value of last year’s hay exports from Colorado River Basin states.

$450 million Value of that hay that went to China. 

$73 million Value shipped to Saudi Arabia.

75% Portion of Utah’s Colorado River use consumed by agriculture in 2018.

446,000 acre-feet Estimated amount of water that evaporates annually from major Upper Basin reservoirs, including about 359,000 acre-feet from Lake Powell.

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