Mar 6 2014
How is it, during this drought, we are shipping Colorado River
water to China? Is it even possible? Yes. Read on. These numbers will be
hard to find in any broadcast or print news media. What you will hear, if
there is any talk of raising the price of water to growers, is the prices
will skyrocket. “No one will be able to afford buying vegetables or meat
(grown with alfalfa feed).”
Meanwhile during the drought residential users
are hearing much about how they must, as their civic duty, save more water.
Mom and Pop, residential users, don’t have powerful lobbyists working for
them, but agri-business does. An amazing statistic is that 80% of
California’s water is used by agri-business which is only 1-2% of the
State’s GNP. See drought facts at: http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/jtf/JTF_DroughtJTF.pdf
In Water Shock Charlie Reagan, the principal character, is talking about this subject.
He is talking about a 2012 Wall Street Journal report http://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu/-files/pdf/CulpGlennon2012.pdf
In another example, he said it took nearly nineteen thousand gallons
of water to grow one bale of alfalfa. The Imperial Valley, now a dust bowl,
was a major grower of alfalfa that sold for about six dollars a bale in
2000.i [end note 22] Because alfalfa required a horrendous amount of water,
irrigation was about 14 percent of the cost of growing it, or eighty-seven
cents per bale. With temperatures climbing into the triple digits, the
biggest threat to crop production was scalding-overheating of the root
structure-when the thermometer got over one hundred four degrees Fahrenheit.
“That had to be for domestic markets so the water didn’t leave the
U.S, right?” Judy asked.
“Wrong,” Charlie said, and cited the stats. “In 2012, the
drought-stricken western United States shipped more than fifty billion
gallons of water to China. This water left the country embedded in
alfalfa-most of it grown in California-destined to feed Chinese cows. You
understand, of course, the alfalfa was dried before it was shipped. The
nineteen thousand gallons per bale was what it took to grow and harvest it.
Not far from where you’ve set up your camp there in El Centro, just south of
old Interstate Eight and east of Fourth Avenue, there was a transfer
facility where they loaded alfalfa hay into shipping containers bound for
“Why grow alfalfa under such conditions?” Judy asked.
Charlie replied: “Because water was cheap. Had water been priced as a
commodity, the market would have dictated growing it where rainfall was
twenty inches per year, not just two inches per year. Corporate agribusiness
likes cheap water subsidized by residential users.”
“Did I just hear you say two inches per year?” Judy asked, her eyes
At one time in what used to be called The Valley of the Dead, but is
now named the Imperial Valley (much nicer), there was plentiful water
flowing from the Colorado River into the Valley before seven states decided
to get together and divide up the water. In 1922 the Colorado River Compact
was signed, and the Imperial Valley was given its share.
But that was a century ago. Changes need to be made. And that change
is to increase the cost of water to agri-business to levels that reflect the
true value of this precious commodity. Growing a water-thirsty crop like
alfalfa where rainfall is two inches annually, with an ever-diminishing
Colorado River being drained dry before it gets to its delta by seven states
is reckless and foolish. Residential users have the power of the ballot box
to make changes. That is the only way Big Alfalfa will be made to understand
we cannot continue to ship water to China in the form of alfalfa hay for
Chinese cows. China, where water is even more scarce, is smart.
22. Keith S. Mayberry, Herman Meister, “Alfalfa Hay,” UC
Davis; U.C. Cooperative Extension, Imperial County; 2003,
http://coststudies.ucdavis.edu/files/alfalfahayflat03.pdf, accessed 2012.