Alfalfaphobia? In which I play the role of Colorado River Tsar–and defend the vilified crop — @Land_Desk

Golf course at Page, Arizona, with Glen Canyon Dam and the diminished Lake Powell in the background. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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

In recent weeks I’ve written a piece or two about alfalfa. My thesis: As the biggest single water user in the Colorado River Basin, the crop must play an equally large role in contributing to the cuts necessary to keep the river from drying out. I know, it doesn’t seem like a hot-button topic. I mean, it’s just hay, after all.

Just hay? Yeah, well, you’ve obviously never heard the famous Mark Twain quote that he never said: Whiskey is for drinking and hay is for rolling in! Oh no, that was Benjamin Franklin who said that, or maybe Abe Lincoln. Anyway. Water may be for drinking, but hay is clearly for fighting over, or so it seems from the reactions to my journalistic foraging.

I’ve been lambasted—and praised—for being an alfalfa basher and for vilifying the crop. Alfalfa farmers have sent me semi-defensive e-mails listing the attributes of alfalfa. The Family Farm Alliance put out an op-ed decrying alfalfa-focused “crop-shaming” (which probably wasn’t directed toward me, but still). One guy pilloried me for saying an outright ban on alfalfa wasn’t the answer. Another sent me cautionary examples of what happens when you “buy and dry” a place. I have not been accused of alfalfaphobia, yet, but if I get canceled, that most likely will be the reason.

But I’ve got no beef with alfalfa. And, as I’ve said before, my calls for alfalfa to step up to the water-consumption-cutting plate have nothing to do with the economic, societal, or nutritional value of alfalfa. In fact, I value alfalfa much more highly than golf courses, swimming pools, fountains, lawns, urban growth, or crops grown for, say, ethanol production.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Just to remind you all of what we’re up against: The Colorado River’s collective users have consumed more water—between 13 million and 14 million acre-feet per year—than is actually in the river—averaging around 12.4 million acre-feet and falling—for the last two decades or so. They’ve been able to do this by draining the savings accounts known as Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Now the time of reckoning has come: Drain the reservoirs any further and they’ll no longer be able to produce hydropower and the dams’ structural integrity could be compromised. At least 2 million acre-feet must be cut to stop the deficit spending, and more than that to start building back some savings—if the river doesn’t continue dropping. But Colorado River water officials warn that the river’s flow could end up averaging just 9 million acre-feet in coming decades, a scary thought, indeed.

In other words, we—the folks who rely on the Colorado River Basin—finally must acknowledge that we live in a desert, and we finally are being forced to live within our means. And with this in mind, I wrote that alfalfa is a “good place to start” when looking for places to cut water use. I didn’t really mean that, though. Farming less alfalfa (or just irrigating it less) must be a big piece of a solution to Colorado River woes, but it’s probably not the place to start cutting.

If I were the Supreme Water Tsar here’s what I’d do before fallowing alfalfa:

Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

– Scrap plans for the Lake Powell PipelineAaron Million’s pipeline and other additional diversions. These folks want to suck more water out of a diminishing system while everyone else is frantically looking for ways to use less water. It’s insane. Utah thinks it has the right to do this because it isn’t using its full allocation from the Colorado River Compact. That doesn’t work. Not only was the Compact based on flawed—and fabricated—numbers, but it has been rendered obsolete by climate change. The only new uses of Colorado River water should be to honor tribal water rights, including those that have not yet been quantified or settled.

Sunrise Denver skyline from Sloan’s Lake September 2, 2022.

– Mandate 10% or greater cuts in overall water use for all urban areas. Las Vegas (of all places) shows that this is not only possible, but can be done without much pain. It had its water use limited by its relatively puny allocation from the Colorado River and managed, through water recycling, conservation, banning ornamental lawns, plugging leaks in the city plumbing system, and so forth, to lessen overall water consumption even while it added population.

Photo credit: VisitTucson.com

– Cities can cut waste with what I call progressive water rates and Tucson calls “increasing block rates.” The idea is the same: As consumption increases, so does the per-unit rate. Under my system, every household would get its first 8,000 gallons per month free (this is a little more than the average two-person household in Tucson uses, which is still a bit excessive, in my opinion). The second 8,000 gallons would cost $50; the third $100; the fourth $200; and so on. This would incentivize conservation—a thrifty family might never pay a water bill—and penalize gluttony. Kim Kardashian’s monthly water bill would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, as it should.

– Seems to go without saying, but: No more new cities in the desert.

– Avoid “buy & dry” water transfers that take water from agriculture to enable cities to grow.

– Allow only dryland golf (and parks and fields and lawns). Sure, you can have your golf course or lawn in the desert, but you can’t irrigate it. Maybe you play on the dirt, maybe on gravel, maybe on artificial turf, but we can’t afford to continue wasting water (and dumping pesticides and fertilizers) to turn the desert green. It takes about 3 million gallons of water per acre to keep grass alive in the desert—about twice what alfalfa uses. And yes, I know that many golf courses use groundwater or recycled water and so aren’t taking it directly from the Colorado River system. But that’s irrelevant. If that water wasn’t used on a golf course it could go to something far more valuable (and yes, I am crop shaming).

Surfing in the desert? Hell no! This thing was proposed for the Coachella Valley—home to over 100 golf courses, oodles of swimming pools, and lakeside housing developments—where water use is as high as 475 gallons per capita per day, one of the highest anywhere. It’s time to cut Coachella off. Oh, and Lake Las Vegas? Yeah, no.

The Las Vegas Wash(Opens another site in new window) is the primary channel through which the Las Vegas Valley’s excess water returns to Lake Mead. Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities. Photo credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority

– More water recycling. I know, it sounds gross, especially when you label it “toilet to tap.” Thing is, we do it already, all of the time. Las Vegas treats its wastewater, dumps it back into Lake Mead, then sucks it back out to use as drinking water. Durango treats all of its sewage and wastewater, dumps it into the Animas River, and downstream users such as Aztec and Farmington then pull it out of the river, treat it and drink it.

The San Juan Generating Station in mid-June of this year. The two middle units (#2 and #3) were shut down in 2017 to help the plant comply with air pollution limits. Unit #1 shut down today and #4 will shut down on Sept. 30 of this year. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

– Ditch fossil fuels. Most thermal power plants, i.e. those fired by coal or natural gas, guzzle massive amounts of water for steam generation and cooling. The San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico consumes about 5.8 billion gallons per year. Altogether, the daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states is about 145 million gallons, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. Extracting natural gas also uses huge amounts of water: A single hydraulic fracturing job consumes and sullies millions of gallons of fresh water. In fact, a new study found that installing rooftop solar on a single California household could avoid enough fossil fuel generation to save some 53,000 gallons of water. (I’ll be doing an energy-water nexus Data Dump soon!).

– Monitor, regulate, and limit groundwater pumping in Arizona (and anywhere else it’s not regulated). Irrigation water in some of the driest parts of Arizona come from groundwater wells that are not monitored or regulated or counted against Colorado River allocations. The Fondomonte Farms alfalfa fields in La Paz County, for example, are irrigated with groundwater. The alfalfa is then shipped to Saudi Arabia where it feeds dairy cows. Groundwater and surface water are connected. It’s time to stop ignoring that fact.

In March 2021, Electrek reported that scientists published a feasibility study about the benefits of erecting solar panels over canals. That study is about to become a reality when a pilot project breaks ground in California. Photo credit: Electrek

– Cover the canals with solar panels, which will not only generate electricity without using more water, but will also reduce evaporation from the canals. The Central Arizona Project, alone, loses about 16,000 acre-feet—or 5.2 billion gallons—per year to evaporation.

Agriculture is the main economic venture on CRIT’s reservation, where a range of crops like alfalfa, cotton and sorghum thrive in the rich soil along the banks of the Colorado River. (Source: CRIT)

– Grow less cotton in the desert. Cotton uses about 75% as much water as alfalfa, which makes it among the thirstiest crops out there. Arizona farmers harvested over 127,000 acres of cotton last year, and regularly exports between $100 million and $200 million worth each year, mostly to China, India, and Vietnam, where it’s made into clothing and shipped right back to the U.S.

Add all of those cuts up and, well, you probably still don’t get the 2 million or 4 million or even 6 million acre-feet of cuts that are necessary. That’s the catch: All the cities, golf courses, power plants, and desert surfing lagoons combined don’t add up to more than a few million acre-feet of water use. So even drying them all up wouldn’t get us to where we need to be.

That leaves us with agriculture in general—which accounts for 70% to 80% of the consumptive use of Colorado River water—and alfalfa and other hay crops, specifically, which together drink up the largest portion of the agricultural sector’s share. There are a number of reasons so much alfalfa is growing in the West. For one thing, there’s demand for it: dairy cattle eat it, beef cattle eat it, rabbits eat it, horses eat it, sometimes even people eat it.

One of my cousins grows alfalfa in southwestern Colorado, and he sent me a list of other virtues of the leafy legume:

– Alfalfa root nodules fix nitrogen from the air and deep roots bring up minerals, adding fertility to the root zone of grasses and other crops.

– It is a perennial crop, especially in the west. With decent care and good luck, a stand will be very productive for 5 good years. Most people in Southwestern Colorado keep theirs for 10 years. I am now re-planting 20 acres after 25 years of haying and grazing. I rotated through triticale and sorghum-sudan grass cover crops. 

– I have the largest acreage of alfalfa under certified organic management in the county. My customers can use their manure in their garden without fear of persistent herbicides.

– Alfalfa is an excellent crop to rotate with potatoes and barley in sustainable fashion. The Rockey brothers of Center, Colorado, are masters at that.

– Alfalfa is drought tolerant. If irrigation is not available, it will come back luxuriantly if and when the water returns. Experienced growers of alfalfa-orchard grass mixtures that have had limited irrigation the last few years have noticed the grass dying out.

– The issue with drought and Alfalfa longevity is in an open winter. Root crowns dry out, split, and become infected when the ground is bare and desiccated.

– I am considering planting sainfoin, it may have a better reputation among your readers. (Editor’s note: sainfoin is an alfalfa-like crop with a fancier name).

I suspect that cutting off water to every alfalfa field in the Colorado River Basin would achieve the necessary cuts on its own—if it were even possible on a logistical or political level. But it would also wreak economic havoc, rip up the cultural fabric of rural areas, cause beef and dairy prices to skyrocket, and possibly lead to another dust bowl. Just as the cuts to overall water consumption must target the biggest consumers, so too should the effort to save water by fallowing alfalfa focus on the biggest alfalfa fields, such as those in southern California and Arizona.

Crop map of the Imperial and Palo Verde Irrigation Districts in southern California. The districts are the first and fifth largest single water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Pink = alfalfa. Source: Aaron Smith, Cropland Data Layer

And even then, “buying and drying” can have unintended consequences, as my friend pointed out. He suggested I check out Crowley County, in eastern Colorado, to see how the practice can play out. Back in the 1970s, Crowley County had 50,000 acres of irrigated crops. But in the ensuing decades the burgeoning metro areas on the Front Range, in need of water to irrigate vast monoculture crops of McMansions, went to the farmers and bought out their water rights. Now only a couple thousand acres in the county are irrigated, and it shows: Thousands of acres of former fields are invasive-weed-choked dust patches. With the ag economy in shambles, the county courted prisons to employ folks who didn’t up and leave.

So, yes, alfalfa needs to play a big role in averting the desiccation of the Colorado River system. And no, saying that is not vilifying alfalfa or crop-shaming or anything of the sort. It’s simple math. But perhaps before we fallow thousands of acres of alfalfa fields we should have a viable replacement in place—an agricultural just transition of sorts that goes beyond merely paying folks not to grow things. Maybe the hay can be replaced by less-thirsty crops, such as corn or beans or grapes or even solar panels. Maybe new industries can be established to fill the economic void. Maybe less-thirsty varieties of alfalfa can be developed.

I’m just glad I’m not the water tsar and I sure as heck don’t envy the folks that have to make the decisions about where and how to make these cuts. It’s not easy. I’m okay to just try to illuminate the topics in the best way I can. And maybe it’s working. I received a note from a Washington, D.C., PR person the other day saying how interesting she found one of my recent articles on alfalfa. Then she added: “I didn’t even know we still farmed alfalfa.”

Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan website

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