If We Can’t Bring Water To The Crops, We Should Bring Crops To The Water

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There’s a very interesting image floating around social media now that makes a point I’ve been trying to make for years about the Colorado River.

Some Background

For those unfamiliar, the Colorado River is a vital resource that supplies water to nearly 40 million people across seven states in the United States and two states in Mexico. It irrigates approximately 5.5 million acres of farmland, generating billions of dollars in agricultural revenue. Additionally, the river supports numerous ecosystems, recreational activities, and contributes to clean energy production through hydroelectric power plants.

There are several reasons why the river’s running short of needed water:

  • Climate Change: Rising temperatures have led to decreased snowpack in the river’s headwaters, reducing the amount of water available for downstream users. This has also resulted in increased evaporation rates, further reducing the available water supply.
  • Drought: The Colorado River Basin has been experiencing prolonged periods of drought, which have become more severe in recent years. This has significantly impacted the river’s ability to replenish its water supply.
  • Overallocation: The Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, divided the river’s water among the seven basin states. However, the allocations were based on an overestimation of the river’s flow (made during record wet years), resulting in a demand that exceeds the available supply during even normal years.
  • Population Growth: Rapid population growth in cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix has put additional pressure on the already strained water resources of the Colorado River.

The ongoing water shortage on the Colorado River has far-reaching consequences, including:

  • Reduced agricultural productivity, leading to economic losses for farmers and higher food prices for consumers.
  • Increased competition for water resources among cities, industries, and ecosystems, potentially leading to conflicts and legal disputes.
  • Threats to wildlife habitats and species that depend on the river for their survival.

Many ideas have been floated, some reasonable and others insane, to fix this crisis. The obvious sane measures would be to use less water, reduce losses in transport due to evaporation and leaks, and improve the management of the whole system to be more collaborative.

On the more extreme end, there have long been calls to bring in more water. Desalination plants on the coasts could take a lot of demand off of the river, allowing other users to get a better chance, but such plants are likely very cost prohibitive.

An even more costly and insane idea would be to bring water in from the Mississippi River.  These plans generally involve constructing pipelines, canals, or other infrastructure to transport water across vast distances. However, these proposals have faced significant challenges, including:

  • High Costs: The construction and maintenance of large-scale water transfer infrastructure would require substantial financial investment, potentially reaching billions of dollars. Additionally, the energy costs associated with pumping water over long distances and varied terrain would be considerable.
  • Environmental Impact: A water transfer project of this magnitude could have severe environmental consequences, such as altering ecosystems, disrupting wildlife habitats, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions due to the energy-intensive nature of pumping water across long distances. There’s also the issue of invasive species that might travel along such a canal or pipeline.
  • Legal and Political Hurdles: The transfer of water between river basins would likely involve complex negotiations among multiple states, federal agencies, and other stakeholders, who may have competing interests and concerns about the potential impacts on their respective water rights and resources.

But, like any issue that has become political, people are pretty quick to finger-point. Highly visible uses of water, such as swimming pools and golf courses, get a lot of criticism, for example. In many places suffering from diminishing water supplies, lawns and car washing also get blamed.

Misplaced Anger

As the flowchart shows, it’s really foolish to blame things like golf courses for the water shortage. Even if every golf course and swimming pool were permanently closed, most of the problem would still remain. Even cutting out all municipal and industrial uses would leave much of the shortfall unsolved.

Even among agriculture, which accounts for the majority of water use, things are not all equal. Plants like cotton, wheat, and corn just don’t use that much water in the region, leaving the brunt of the water usage up to livestock feed crops, with alfalfa being a big part of it.

What makes the problem even more strange is that 20% of the livestock feed crops get exported to places like China and Saudi Arabia, so we’re basically exporting 10% of the water in the Colorado River overseas when we’re short of domestic needs.

If We Can’t Bring Water To The Crops, We Should Bring Crops To The Water

With all of the alfalfa coming from the Colorado River’s drainage area, you’d think it’s native to the area, but that’s far from the truth (literally). Like alcohol, algebra, and albedo, alfalfa is an Arabic word. North America didn’t have any alfalfa production until the Spanish (recovering from a long occupation by Arabic-speaking people) brought the crop to the Americas to provide feed for their horses.

So, it seems pretty obvious that alfalfa could easily be grown in many other places, not just in the United States, but globally.

In the United States, alfalfa is grown over a large area, with much of it not in the Colorado Basin. So, there’s at least some flexibility in where it can be grown while there’s little flexibility left in water supplies. So, the natural thing would be to move production to areas better suited for it.

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Even when it can’t be moved to places that already have abundant water (and often too much), it could at least be moved closer. The idea of pumping water from the Mississippi to the Colorado is largely absurd because the water would have to be pumped over the Continental Divide, incurring huge pumping costs. But, there are suitable places a lot closer to the Mississippi where pumping water to them would be a lot cheaper.

So, it would make a lot of sense to move at least some of the alfalfa to where the water is, with perhaps export crops being the first that must be moved. In combination with other measures to reduce water usage, the Colorado River could be under a lot less strain.

Featured image by USDA (Public Domain).

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba