Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):
This week two reports on agriculture in the Colorado River Basin popped into my inbox. It was quite interesting to read them back to back, given the similar topic and the wildly diverging slants:
- The Family Farm Alliance The Importance of Irrigated Agriculture in the Colorado River Basin & The Western United States.
- And Food and Water Watch released Big Ag is Draining the Colorado River Dry.
That these two papers dropped at almost the same time is mere coincidence, I’m sure, but it still gave the effect of a brutal water-policy cage fight in which the alfalfaphiles go up against the alfalfaphobes and innocent folks like yours truly get caught in the crossfire. Which is not to say the reports are brutish in the way that, say Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk — those other wannabe cage fighters — are. Anything but. Both papers are informative, make good points, and are well worth a read.
I’m not going to rehash all of their arguments here. I’ve covered both sides of the alfalfa debate pretty thoroughly in the past (links below). What’s interesting to me is how much attention the alfalfa/water use issue is getting these days after long wallowing in relative obscurity. One of the Land Desk’s first Data Dumps was on alfalfa and water use and a lot of the responses to it were along the lines of: Finally, someone’s talking about alfalfa! That was just two and a half years ago. Now, everyone’s talking about alfalfa.
And a lot of that talk irks the Family Farm Alliance’s Dan Keppen, a noted alfalfaphile. His report claims that urban interests and junior water rights holders — with support from journalists — “have mounted a sustained campaign against agricultural water use in the basin, often pointing to alfalfa as one crop that uses too much water … .” He even calls me out by name!
I’m flattered. Really. But to be fair, I wasn’t being sensational. I was simply doing the math. Fact is, alfalfa and other forage crops use a lot of the Colorado River’s water, and the only way to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of consumption is to stop irrigating a lot of that alfalfa.
Keppen goes on to suggest that the purpose of this “demonization” of Western agriculture is to take water from farmers and use it to fuel urban growth. That has certainly happened in the past, usually in the form of buy and dry. But the Colorado River situation is a bit more dire: There simply isn’t enough water to irrigate all of the existing crops and serve all of the existing people. It’s just not there — the water, I mean.
As the title implies, the Food and Water Watch report targets factory farms and industrial-scale agriculture, not small farms, even ones that grow only alfalfa. Long-time Land Desk readers will be familiar with most of the numbers and information in the report: alfalfa is thirsty; agriculture — specifically forage crops that feed dairy and beef cows — is the biggest user of Colorado River water; some of that alfalfa — along with Colorado River water — is being shipped overseas; the Colorado River Compact is riddled with flaws, the most egregious being its exclusion of the tribal nations that should rightfully control all of the river’s water; and so on.
But the report isn’t merely an indictment of the current system. It also suggests reforms, including:
- ban new factory farms and limit expansions of existing facilities;
- stop using federal funds to prop up factory alfalfa farms;
- restrict alfalfa exports;
- help small- and medium-scale farmers shift to more geographically appropriate crops;
- define water as a public trust resource, not a commodity.
For a bit more reading:
“Another record-breaking drought,” wrote Dan Keppen in the report referenced above, “is now in the rearview mirror for many parts of the Western U.S.” Perhaps. But to carry the metaphor into the present: That drought has rushed right back up the highway and is once again riding our bumper like a jerk-ass motorist from (fill in the state/region of your choice).
How can that be, you might ask, given our wet and wild winter and spring? The answer: July. It was hot. It was dry. Oh, July. Basically, the entire West — save for Wyoming and a little portion of the Colorado plains — was warmer than average (with record-breaking heat in the Southwest) and drier than average.