This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Does the Western Megadrought Mean the End of Cheap Cheese and Ice Cream?, first released on September 27, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
LEILA FADEL: A water crisis on the Colorado River is getting worse.
STEVE INSKEEP: Yeah, new federal forecasts show the nation’s two largest reservoirs are at record lows. They are both on the Colorado River in the American West, and they put the water supply of 40 million people in jeopardy.
BROADCASTER: This is lake Mead at historic lows. The so-called bathtub ring showing where the water level used to be.
BEN TRACY: It’s a crisis on the Colorado. The nation’s largest reservoirs are rapidly retreating. Western states are being warned to drastically cut their water use.
NICOLA TWILLEY: This crisis should not be news to most of you because it is in the news. Especially out in Los Angeles, where I live, all we’ve seen, all summer, are pictures of bathtub rings around empty reservoirs and dry brown parched landscapes. The American West is in a megadrought and the Colorado river is disappearing in front of our eyes.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Here’s the surprising part of the story: this is also a food crisis, because it turns out that 70 percent of Colorado River water goes to agriculture. And we, all over the country, eat the food that the West grows.
TWILLEY: Lettuces, almonds, all your fruits and veggies really. But also, and this is the part most people don’t know — your cheese, your ice-cream, and the milk in your cereal bowl — lots of that relies on Colorado River water too!
GRABER: It’s not because we just spray Colorado River water over cows in California to keep them cool and give it to them to drink. It’s because the majority of farming in the southwest, and the majority of the agricultural water, goes to growing something called alfalfa.
DAN PUTNAM: Alfalfa’s pretty important crop in the United States.
ROBERT GLENNON: Well, it’s a very big deal.
ROB O’DELL: It’s the biggest deal. It’s, there isn’t anything that’s a bigger deal.
TWILLEY: It’s official: Alfalfa is a BFD. And yet before we made this episode of Gastropod, I really hadn’t given it a moment’s thought. Gastropod, in case you’re in any doubt, is what you’re listening to — it’s the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. So I’ve eaten alfalfa sprouts, sure, they’ve accompanied my veggie sandwiches for decades. But there aren’t a lot of alfalfa-sprout-filled veggie sandwiches on American plates. So why is alfalfa one of the most grown crops in California?
TWILLEY: And why has it become the unlikely baddie in our current water woes?
VAL FISHMAN: Yeah. Well, alfalfa, if anybody has been watching any news on any water consumption, they’ve heard of alfalfa and it has gotten a bad rap because it is a high water user.
GRABER: Which leads to our next question, why in the world are we growing such a thirsty crop in the desert? And then on top of that, why are we exporting that alfalfa around the world?
TWILLEY: This episode, we are getting to the bottom of this alfalfa controversy. Is alfalfa really to blame for all our water woes? Can we fix our current crisis by eliminating alfalfa — and what would happen to our ice cream supplies if we did?
GRABER: This special episode was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
TWILLEY: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.
JACK SEILER: My name’s Jack Seiler and we’re in Imperial County, California. And this is an old alfalfa stand of ours.
GRABER: On a very hot day this summer, Nicky and I drove a few hours inland from Los Angeles to the town of Blythe, California, which is on the Colorado River. Blythe is an agriculture town, and there’s a lot of alfalfa growing in the fields around there.
TWILLEY: We were there to meet up with one of the farmers growing a bunch of that alfalfa: Jack Seiler. He took us out into his fields.
GRABER: The desert in the distance was all brown and beige, but the fields we were standing in stretched out for acres and acres of bright green. The alfalfa was about knee height.
GRABER: Can we try it?
SEILER: Try it.
TWILLEY: Okay. We’re going to have some.
SEILER: Just tastes like grass.
TWILLEY: Hm. It’s green. Tastes green.
GRABER: Very green. I’m trying- there’s a vegetable that reminds me of an herb, but I can’t place it right now.
TWILLEY: It’s actually kind of tasty.
GRABER: If you’d seen us in the field it would have looked like we were snacking on some leafy herb, but alfalfa apparently isn’t an herb or even a grass.
JOHN SZCZEPANSKI: It’s actually a legume. And therefore it’s related to the pea family.
GRABER: John Szczepanski is director of the US forage export council. Forage in this case just means the grassy bales of hay that horses and cattle eat.
TWILLEY: Cynthia and I may have enjoyed munching on alfalfa in the field, but we are not its target audience. Humans are not the main consumers of alfalfa — not by a long shot.
SZCZEPANSKI: Alfalfa is primarily fed as a nutrition for dairy cattle. In fact, two thirds of all the alfalfa grown in the United States is fed for dairy cattle.
GRABER: And most of what dairy cattle eat is alfalfa.
SZCZEPANSKI: Because of its high protein, and it also has, you know, a good percentage of fiber. That combination, that’s perfect for dairy cattle. That’s exactly what, a lactating dairy cow needs.
DAN PUTNAM: It is a crop that really produces milk in a very effective way. And animals really relish this crop.
TWILLEY: Dan Putnam is the alfalfa man. He’s the University of California’s extension specialist on alfalfa and other forages.
PUTNAM: The modern dairy cow produces about three to four times as much milk per cow as a cow did in the 1950s. And so we have to remember that that animal requires very high quality feeds.
TWILLEY: Like alfalfa!
PUTNAM: I call it a food producing engine, because you can produce approximately 2000 to 2,500 gallons of milk in an alfalfa field, commonly.
GRABER: And we Americans eat a massive amount of dairy, on average more than three times our body weight each year.
SZCZEPANSKI: Consequently alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the United States, based on acreage. It’s just behind corn, soybean, and wheat.
PUTNAM: United States is the leading producer of alfalfa in the world.
TWILLEY: We did tell you it was a really big deal.
SEILER: They call it the queen of forage because cows love it. Horses love it. All I know is that they use this stuff like crazy
TWILLEY: We may be the biggest producer in the world today, but alfalfa is not originally from the US. Like many staple foods, it comes from the Fertile Crescent.
PUTNAM: Yeah, alfalfa is one of the oldest crops domesticated by humans. It originated probably at least several thousand years before the current era, in the Middle East and Iran, Iraq.
GRABER: Alfalfa started to spread around the Mediterranean—the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans loved it. Not only was it great to help feed the animals you were going to eat, but it was also great to feed the animals, that is, the horses, that you needed to ride into war.
PUTNAM: In the ancient world, alfalfa was always associated with military might. In fact the name alfalfa means good horse fodder, or good horse feed.
TWILLEY: These days, in Europe, alfalfa is more commonly called lucerne. Which is in fact the brand name of a huge North American dairy company. So a lot of places in the US you can buy Lucerne milk, produced by cows that eat lucerne, or you know, alfalfa.
GRABER: Alfalfa had reached China by the first century CE. It took a little while longer to get to the New World, but it showed up here almost as soon as Europeans did.
PUTNAM: it was actually grown by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in their estates in the south. But it was somewhat frustrating because in the high rainfall areas it wasn’t instantly successful. But then later on in the 1800s, it moved from Spain into Mexico and into south America, and also up until California and the Southwest, where it was essentially instantly successful
GRABER: Because California is a lot like the Mediterranean. And alfalfa loves it.
PUTNAM: Historically it’s one of the largest—in fact, the largest acreage crop in California.
TWILLEY: In sunny Southern California, alfalfa can grow almost all year round—you can be harvesting eight or nine months out of twelve
PUTNAM: So after, after our April harvest, we’ll get pretty much one harvest a month all the way through the year until October, November.
TWILLEY: Jack confirmed this when he took us on a tour of his fields.
SEILER: We’ll harvest at least eight times and get approximately 10 tons per acre per year.
SZCZEPANSKI: And for a farmer that represents cash flow.
GRABER: That’s huge—a crop you can completely regrow eight times a year? Awesome.
TWILLEY: In general, alfalfa’s got a lot of upside. Its roots go super deep—more than twice as deep as, say, wheat. And that helps store carbon and nutrients.
GRABER: As John said, alfalfa is a legume, like a pea—it’s not a grain. And so there are little nodules on its roots that help grab nitrogen from the air and store it in the soil. That’s good for other crops in a rotation, because nitrogen is a fertilizer, so then in theory farmers don’t have to add as much synthetic fertilizer.
TWILLEY: To boost those eco-friendly credentials even more, alfalfa fields are also really popular with birds and bees and all sorts of other important creatures whose natural habitats we’ve mostly destroyed.
SZCZEPANSKI: So it’s a relatively easy crop to grow. It contributes a lot to soil health. And economically it’s just returning cash on a consistent, stable basis. And that’s a great combination for a farmer.
GRABER: All of this makes alfalfa sound kind of like a perfect crop. But—and yes there’s almost always a but—Dan said alfalfa was an instant success in California, but he added one critical caveat:
PUTNAM: It was essentially instantly successful, as long as you have irrigation water.
TWILLEY: And there is the rub.
GRABER: To be fair, most crops most places in the US require some irrigation water. But, as it turns out, alfalfa requires a lot of water.
TWILLEY: How much water, you ask? Well, to put alfalfa’s thirstiness into context, we need to explain something called an acre foot, which is how farmers measure irrigation. An acre foot is how much water it takes to cover one acre of land in one foot of water. One acre foot is 326,000 gallons of water, or about 7,500 bathtubs-full.
GRABER: Dan told us further north from Jack in California, an acre of alfalfa might need about three or four acre feet per year. Jack is in a hotter and drier region, so his alfalfa needs eight.
TWILLEY: That’s already a lot of bathtubs full. And if you think about how much alfalfa is being grown in California alone—hundreds of thousands of acres—it all adds to up to what I would technically call a shedload of water.
GRABER: And it might not surprise you listeners to hear that Jack’s water, and in fact a lot of the water that goes to irrigating alfalfa to feed hungry dairy cows, THAT comes from the Colorado River.
TWILLEY: Yep, it’s time to meet the hardest working river in the West
NARRATOR: For untold centuries, the turbid waters of the Colorado river battered their way through the forbidding canyons of its 1700 mile course, traversing the arid southwest. For the most part, little known except to the native Indians and a few parties of intrepid explorers.
GRABER: This narration sounds pretty old and crackly, and in fact it’s from a 1931 movie made by the government, by the Bureau of Reclamation, just as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River was being built.
NARRATOR: Before the dams, the Colorado ran free, from the Rocky mountains through the high grasslands to the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and southern California, before reaching the ocean in Mexico.
TWILLEY: Jim Holloway is the director of the Babbit Center for Land and Water Policy.
JIM HOLLOWAY: The Colorado River is essential to the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico. We often refer to it as the hardest working river in the west. And it’s a lifeline in an arid region of the country that depends on it.
TWILLEY: More than 40 million people live in that region—the southwest is one of the fastest growing parts of America. I’m one of those people, and we all pretty much depend on the Colorado. But it’s not all going to showers, swimming pools, and golf courses
HOLLOWAY: There are 4 million acres of agriculture. Certainly anyone in the US or Canada that’s eating a salad anywhere from November ‘til April, it got watered by the Colorado River. And 30 native American tribes reside within the basin as well.
GRABER: In its original state, the Colorado River wasn’t always super full of water—like most Western rivers it really varied seasonally. Some times of the year it raged; sometimes it was kind of dry. The Native Americans had developed effective systems to maximize water from the Colorado for farming, as we described in our desert agriculture episode, but it probably was pretty annoying for any white people who wanted to move out there. A lot of them weren’t interested in trying to scratch out a living in the desert.
TWILLEY: So the US government looked at that long river in a dry region and they thought, hey, let’s dam it up, and control it, and let’s use that newly predictable supply of water to convince people to come out and farm in the southwest.
ROBERT GLENNON: In 1902, when Congress passed the Reclamation Act, it was designed to help the rural west be, quote, reclaimed, from a barren wasteland of desert into productive farm country.
GRABER: This is Robert Glennon, he’s an emeritus professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Law and the author of a book called Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis And What To Do About It.
GLENNON: And, when the dams in the west, on the Colorado River, on the Columbia river, on the Snake river system, throughout Colorado—really across the entire west—were built, one of the principal objectives was to provide water for farmers to grow food.
NARRATOR: And so Boulder Dam stands today, a modern Colossus. Shouldering the rock rib walls of black canyon. Stemming and controlling the floods, and bending the will of a hitherto ungovernable stream, the Colorado River. To perform the fruitful tasks of a civilization rapidly invading the limits of its last frontier.
TWILLEY: Starting in the 1930s and continuing in subsequent decades, the government—the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers—they poured hundreds of millions of dollars—a cool billion or two in today’s money—into building a series of dams and canals and dykes. The Boulder Dam—that’s now called Hoover Dam—and it was the crown jewel of the Colorado system.
NARRATOR: Thousands of tons of steel, millions of barrels of cement, machinery, gasoline, and oil by the thousands of gallons. Tools, building materials. All these and much more were concentrated at the site of operations in an endless stream.
GRABER: So thinking about those billions of dollars to make water available for farming, how much have the US government and the taxpayers subsidized farming in the southwest?
GLENNON: Oh, gosh. If I just said every way imaginable, would that be…?
TWILLEY: Yep. Basically this is all a gigantic ongoing taxpayer handout to farmers in the southwest. Which is fine but something to bear in mind as we get into the nitty gritty here.
GRABER: So the dams were built, and there was a lot of water stored up to use throughout the year, but then who decided how to share all this water—how much each farmer would get?
TWILLEY: There are seven states along the Colorado River and they had to work that out. Of course, they wanted to do it themselves, they had that frontier mentality of wanting to limit the federal government’s role to paying for things, rather than making decisions about them.
GRABER: The states got together to figure out how to divvy up that water in 1922. At the time, California was kind of the only place that had a significant population of non-Native American people living there; they’d come out for the gold rush.
TWILLEY: The other six states had almost no white population, but the few white people who lived there feared getting crushed by the California juggernaut. Hence the meetings to try to grab hold of water they might want for later, before California took it all.
GRABER: The discussions were really contentious, but at the end there was a kind of basic split into two parts of the Colorado River basin. There’s the north basin, which has parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the south basin, which has parts of California, Arizona, and Nevada. John Weisheit is co-founder of Living Rivers, he said this division helped the states eventually come up with a deal.
JOHN WEISHEIT: Let’s split the basin. Let’s give each basin 7.5 million acre feet, and we’ll figure out the details later. We’ll worry about Mexico at a later in time as well. And we’ll worry about the tribes at a later time as well.
TWILLEY: That’s kind of my motto for life, worry about it later, but in this particular case, it was obviously super problematic. And add that to the fact that the dams themselves are pretty problematic—dams inevitably always silt up and we don’t have a plan for how to deal with that. Still today.
GRABER: But even leaving all of those really big problems aside, there was another really big problem. As John said, the agreement went: let’s give each basin 7.5 million acre feet, which means they decided to hand out 15 million acre feet.
HOLLOWAY: The belief at the time was they were allocating 15 million acre feet and they were thinking, oh, we have 17 to 20 million acre feet in this river. We have plenty of water left to take care of these other uses in the future.
TWILLEY: This belief turns out to have been completely and utterly wrong.
WEISHEIT: Gauges didn’t really become competent for scientific purposes until 1906 and the Colorado river compact came out in 1922. So they essentially only had 14 years of data. And it just turns out that those 14 years were the wettest 14 years in the entire history of the Colorado river.
GRABER: Even at the time, there were some scientists who thought this allocation was a bit overoptimistic. But even more scientists and policy makers realized they might have gotten it wrong just a decade later.
WEISHEIT: When the dust bowl of the 1930s hit, did they realize they had made a mistake? And the answer is yes, they did. And then you have to ask why didn’t they readjust the Colorado river compact? And the answer to that is they did not. They liked the over the over appropriation approach.
GLENNON: But here’s the kicker: in the 1950s, 60s and into the 70s, the tree ring scientists at the University of Arizona, where I teach, determined that the flow of the river was not reliably 18 or 20 million acre feet, it was more like 14 million acre feet. And that’s over a 10,00 year historical record.
TWILLEY: And unfortunately by then, the US government had signed a treaty with Mexico that gave the Mexicans rights to their own 1.5 million acre feet.
GRABER: And then of course there were the Native American tribes who lived there. It’s complicated—they now have recognized rights to a lot of water, but they don’t always have access to all that water and it gets used by other folks downstream. That said, they theoretically seem to have legal right to more than 3 million acre feet.
TWILLEY: Which if you do the maths, means that 19 and a half million acre feet of water from the river have been legally allocated. Which is practically one and a half river’s worth of water coming out of just the one river. The Colorado was over-allocated from the start.
WEISHEIT: The report card of the Colorado River Compact is it’s a hundred years old and we have empty reservoirs. So it is a terribly wrong document. And it is not equitable.
TWILLEY: Everyone and their aunt can see that this over-allocation is an issue nowadays. But it wasn’t a huge problem for years, because only California was taking its full allocation. There just weren’t as many people in the southwest—for years, Phoenix was just a podunk farm town.
GRABER: But Phoenix grew, and Las Vegas grew, and even Los Angeles grew, a lot—and agriculture in the region grew a lot as well—and so even states that hadn’t been using the full amount of the Colorado River water they were promised started saying, hey, we need that water. And by 2000, people realized that things were bad. I mean, even before the current drought was in full swing, people knew that the Colorado River was kind of screwed. It was even on the West Wing.
CJ: It’s not a drought. It would be a drought if we were experiencing far less than average annual rainfall, but we’re not. We’re dealing with 58 million people wrestling over one river’s water based on calculations taken in what we now know were 20 flood years. The party’s over. I’m asking you to work with us.
MAN: Hey, I hear you.
TWILLEY: I hear you, but I’m not actually going to do anything. In real life, as in the West Wing, politicians typically prefer to pretend the party’s still going on rather than working together on hard things. But the states did agree to some cosmetic cuts in 2007.
GRABER: Meanwhile, we’ve got another problem rearing its ugly head: climate change. That’s changing rainfall patterns and then the extra heat means more evaporation *and* more demand, and our experts estimate that increased evaporation and reduced rainfall have pushed the river another couple of million acre feet into the red.
HOLLOWAY: And then, lo and behold, we get into, you know, 2010, 11, 12, 13, and we realize the cuts we agreed to in 2007 aren’t good enough. And so that’s what led to, in 2019, the drought contingency plan being agreed to. That probably took two or three years of negotiations. And that laid a whole ‘nother level of cuts on top of what we’d already agreed to.
TWILLEY: With all this talk of cuts and negotiations, it’s easy to forget: this is not just a local political crisis, or just one particular river and its ecosystem in crisis. This is much more serious than that. Remember, this poor, overused, hard-working river is basically essential to life for the more than 40 million people who live in the southwest. And it’s also essential to a lot of the cheese and butter and milk that a lot of Americans are consuming in such vast quantities, and that’s before we even get to global agriculture exports that other countries rely on, too.
GRABER: With varying degrees of commitment and success, cities in the southwest have been doing their part to try to cut water use. They’ve been doing things like saying you can only water your lawn once a week, they’re turning off fountains, they’re banning backyard swimming pools and recycling indoor water to use again. There’s definitely more that can be done, but those savings are happening.
TWILLEY: Those things are important. I have a bucket in my shower to capture any extra water while it warms up, so nothing is wasted. But although my efforts and those of my fellow urban dwellers matter, it’s never going to be enough, because between 70 and 80 percent of the Colorado is actually used for agriculture.
GRABER: And of that 70 to 80 percent going to agriculture, more than a third of it is used to water alfalfa. If you want to cut water use in the West, you have to look at agriculture, and that means you have to look at alfalfa. Yes, we’ve now gotten back to alfalfa.
TWILLEY: Praise be.
GRABER: After the break, can we save the Colorado River by cutting some of the water that goes to alfalfa, and what’s that going to do to my cheese supply?
TWILLEY: Okay. It’s a hot, muggy afternoon. And we are about to see the Colorado river.
GRABER: And we have just driven for hours and hours through the desert to get here. And we’re not talking about just like, oh, it’s, you know, a little dry looking. We’re talking desert.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
TWILLEY: And we see it!
GRABER: I believe this is the Colorado! It even has water in it.
TWILLEY: This is a sizable river that is moving quite fast. I don’t know anything about how deep it is because there’s sandbars in the middle. But it is wide.
GRABER: But it’s not like wider than the Charles in Boston.
TWILLEY: Oh no, no, no, no. But I mean, I’m just saying for a Western river, it’s not a bad size. Like get your East Coast rivers out of your head.
GRABER: I shook my head a bit to get rid of the image of the Charles in Boston and just focus on where we were, which was near Jack’s farm in Blythe, California. It’s on the border with Arizona.
TWILLEY: We’d come specifically here, standing in California, looking at the Colorado River and talking about how much water we saw, because this is really where the water goes—Blythe farmers have one of the strongest claims on Colorado river water.
WEISHEIT: They’re part of the prior appropriation system. They get their water, no matter what the Colorado river compact says or doesn’t say.
TWILLEY: Blythe honestly does not have a ton of charms today, but what it does have is this prior appropriation of rights to Colorado river water. This is thanks to one Thomas Blythe—as you can probably guess, he’s the town’s namesake, he bought the land the town’s mostly built on, and he was smart enough to file a claim on the water he was using to irrigate that land all the way back in the 1870s
WEISHEIT: And most of those farmers are still in business. They have senior water rights and their water is tied to their property.
GRABER: Obviously it’s not the exact same farmers, we didn’t meet anyone who’s 150 years old, but these farms are still in existence. And this is the point of prior appropriation, it’s how water works in the West. The first colonists to use water had senior rights to that water, and land owners in Blythe were there even before the 1922 compact, so this means that Blythe farmers have access to their water before anyone who has more junior rights.
TWILLEY: Jack told us that when he wants to irrigate his field, all he has to do is call up the irrigation district manager and tell them he wants to open a canal gate to his field. And a guy in a yellow pickup truck comes down and opens it up for him, and keeps it open. As long as he wants, to let in as much water as he wants.
GRABER: Jack told us it takes about 10 hours to cover one field with water.
SEILER: It’ll be gone by morning. It’ll percolate down rather quickly and be gone by morning.
GRABER: One of the most shocking things about this is that Jack gets all this water practically for free. The most recent price that we’ve seen is that Jack pays the irrigation district about 77 dollars per acre feet. And he doesn’t have a limit on that water other than what he can afford.
SEILER: You can use all the water you want for beneficial use. Beneficial use is kind of this nebulous old fashioned term, but that means you can’t take it outside the district. You have to use it for growing crops.
GRABER: You can use as much as you want? You have no limit?
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is supplying city dwellers with water to drink and wash with and, yes, water their lawns if they still have them—the latest figures we could find show that they pay around a thousand dollars per acre foot for Colorado River water.
GRABER: And they can’t use as much as they want if they’re willing to spend the money. They have a limit.
TWILLEY: When city dwellers are being told: we’re running out of water and we need to make sacrifices and then they hear that alfalfa farmers in the desert can use as much water as they want, there’s understandably a little bit of tension. And that tension meant that it was hard to find a farmer who uses Colorado River water to grow alfalfa and who was willing to talk to us about it. Even Jack was wary.
SEILER: And I don’t really want to speak to water. Because we’re in a—we’re in a very nebulous time with negotiations on the river.
GRABER: But even though the community there doesn’t want to talk about it, they are all still using that water, and they’re using it to farm alfalfa. Because a lot of people want to buy alfalfa.
SZCZEPANSKI: A farm in the American west, they’ve got options. They can sell that alfalfa to local dairies. And sometimes an export processor will come knocking and say, you know, we’re interested in your alfalfa.
GRABER: John Szcapanski is an expert in alfalfa exporting. He told us overseas sales first started in the 70s for racehorses, but then, in the 80s. Japan and Korea started to grow their dairy industry and they started buying alfalfa.
TWILLEY: Alfalfa exports aren’t tracked super closely, but our experts told us that today, something like 15 to 20 percent of all the alfalfa that is grown under irrigation in the arid west of the United States is exported. Although not Jack’s.
SEILER: Not in my operation. My neighbor, all of their hay goes overseas.
GRABER: Jack didn’t say where the neighbor sent his alfalfa, but it could be to the Middle East. Because that’s another arid region of the world that became interested in our alfalfa and our water.
GRABER: Saudi Arabia built a huge dairy industry in the 70s, one of their farms is now the largest in the world. They wanted their citizens to mimic our western diet, for better or maybe for worse.
TWILLEY: Originally, Saudi Arabia was growing its own alfalfa to feed all those cows.
PUTNAM: They wanted to be self-sufficient in food production. They’ve actually changed that viewpoint, because of the problem with, you know, essentially they’re pumping what we call fossil water. This is water that’s been laid down millions of years ago.
TWILLEY: The Saudi leaders realized that their ancient underground aquifers were going to run out pretty quickly if they kept growing alfalfa. So they started importing it. And then they also started setting up their own farms in the western US.
GRABER: Rob O’Dell is an investigative reporter at the Arizona Republic, and he has gone out to see those farms in person.
O’DELL: Well, I mean, they totally stick out and look totally out of place. If you drive out to Western Arizona, if you drive like from Phoenix to where you’d go to Blythe, you can see one of the farms as you’re going out to California off to the right, and it’s just a massive sea of like emerald green.
TWILLEY: Seeing these foreign alfalfa farms that are sucking up precious water in the desert has understandably made some people mad.
O’DELL: You know, a lot of people say like, you know, why would you do this in the desert? And, you know, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. But they get the water for free. So that’s the thing, like, you get the water for free. And all the rest of it starts to make a lot more sense.
GRABER: The pricing in Arizona is a little complicated, we’ll link to Rob’s reporting on the subject, but the point is it is extremely cheap for these farms to get all the water they need to grow all the alfalfa they can and then ship it home across the ocean.
TWILLEY: These days, the Middle East isn’t the biggest alfalfa buyer anymore—they also started sourcing a lot of their alfalfa from closer countries—from Eastern Europe, mostly. China’s an even bigger market for US alfalfa.
GLENNON: The Chinese government embarked on a campaign to, sort of what I remember as a kid: drink milk, you know, strong bones. So there’s been a big increase in milk consumption, even though it’s widely understood that a significant percentage of Chinese adults are lactose intolerant.
GRABER: Robert and a colleague of his did the math and broke the story in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago—they found that we in the US were shipping 50 billion gallons of water to China every year, in the form of alfalfa.
GLENNON: A lot of people were shocked at that. And it’s a lot of water.
TWILLEY: My first thought here was, you know, China is a very big country. There must be somewhere there with plenty of water and nice sunshine for alfalfa to grow.
GRABER: But John told us that the best place to grow it is in the western part of China but the big population centers and the dairies are in the east, and it’s expensive to truck that alfalfa.
SZCZEPANSKI: And consequently, we find that those countries, China, in particular, they start looking at importing forage because it just makes sense.
O’DELL: And then you also have sort of this quirk of global trade where we buy tons of goods from China. So there’s container ship after container ship after container ship coming to the US from China.
GRABER: But those containers then have to go back to China to get more T-shirts and basketballs and iPhones, and nobody wants to send them back empty.
O’DELL: So the cost to put the alfalfa back on the containers back to China is not very high. And so that starts to make the economics make even more sense.
TWILLEY: This is kind of weird but once China stopped agreeing to import all our waste paper and cardboard for recycling a few years ago, there really wasn’t much else to put in those containers.
SZCZEPANSKI: From the United States, we have very little that can go in a box and be appreciated by a foreign market. And in fact, forage—hay and straw—is the single biggest commodity that is put inside of a container and sent overseas.
TWILLEY: Another weird alfalfa fact I would never have guessed.
GRABER: So, as you listeners can tell, we’re in a bit of a conundrum here. We farm a very water thirsty crop in the desert, and we farm a lot of it, and we even sell a lot of that very water thirsty crop overseas. BUT, we have to cut our water use, and those cuts are going to have to come from agriculture.
TWILLEY: And unlike the people who first signed the Colorado compact, we can’t figure it out later. We have to do something now. Coming up after the break, what do we do to have our ice cream and our water too?
TWILLEY: One of the things we wondered is: if this water is so precious and so scarce, which it is, why not use it to grow food for humans, not cows? But it turns out that’s complicated too.
PUTNAM: Basically, an almond orchard at full canopy takes about the same amount of water as an alfalfa crop.
TWILLEY: This is true, but also we already told you alfalfa is water thirsty. So what gives?
GRABER: Well, almonds are also thought of as being pretty water thirsty, so that’s one thing. But really, it’s because almonds use roughly the same amount of water per harvest, but alfalfa gets irrigated and then harvested like 8 times a year, and almonds are harvested only once.
TWILLEY: So alfalfa *is* using more water in a year, but it’s producing lots more harvests.
GRABER: And then on top of that, the entire alfalfa plant from top to bottom is used, cows eat the whole thing. So it’s an efficient use of water, you get more plant used per water applied.
TWILLEY: But that’s also where the whole efficiency argument kind of breaks down, because although we have bred cows to be lean, mean milk-producing machines, it’s not like one pound of alfalfa in equals one pound of butter out. It’s more like 13 pounds of alfalfa to a pound of butter.
GRABER: This is complicated stuff. Cows don’t only eat alfalfa, and the feed conversion from alfalfa is a tricky thing to figure out. But basically, it seems like it takes a lot of alfalfa to make less milk.
GRABER: And so to go back to our original question, wouldn’t it be better to use that water for food we eat directly, instead of having cows convert it to ice cream?
TWILLEY: Dan says actually a lot of farmers in the Central Valley of California have made exactly that decision. They’ve switched their alfalfa fields to almonds, and now there are three times as many almonds grown as there were fifteen years ago.
TWILLEY: But Jack’s not switching to almonds anytime soon.
SEILER: Almonds don’t don’t work here. There’s not enough chilling hours in the wintertime. And if you’re going to grow vegetables, you’re gonna go to Yuma.
GRABER: Jack said Yuma, Arizona, is where a lot of vegetables are grown, because Arizona doesn’t have as many protections for workers as California does, and so labor is cheaper there. He and the farmers near him aren’t planning to switch to vegetables, either.
TWILLEY: Dan—he *is* the alfalfa man—he says maybe we should actually be looking at consuming alfalfa ourselves. Not munching on it raw, necessarily, although we quite liked the taste. But alfalfa could be a great ingredient for all kinds of alternative milks and meats and even bars and powders.
PUTNAM: Alfalfa actually produces more protein per acre than any crop. And, if you don’t believe me, I can send you the calculations.
TWILLEY: Weird alfalfa fact number three trillion.
GRABER: It sounds like a good idea for us to eat all that protein directly, but it’s not going to be happening in the near future. The protein is hard to extract and nobody’s figured out how to make it into a commercial product yet.
TWILLEY: Well, OK, maybe we just need to drink less milk. And—I guess—eat less cheese?
VAL FISHMAN: Before coming here, I would say I was the kind of person that was like, everybody should stop eating meat and dairy. And like, how’s that going? How’s that going? Yeah. So. That’s not going to happen.
GRABER: Val Fishman is the chief development officer of Common Good Water, and like she says, we have not been cutting down on dairy. Despite what you may have heard about the popularity of oat milk, dairy consumption in the US continues to grow every year.
TWILLEY: And dairy consumption is also rising globally. So that’s not really a practical solution.
GRABER: So then if we have to keep feeding dairy cows so we can all eat more than our body’s worth of milk, cheese, and ice cream, could those cows eat something else, something that isn’t as thirsty?
TWILLEY: Dan told us that although there are definitely grasses that produce a higher yield for less water, cows don’t actually like them. They don’t have the right nutrient mix, not enough protein, so then you have to add other ingredients to get there and keep your cows productive, and those other ingredients come with their own issues.
GRABER: We could theoretically grow alfalfa somewhere else, and farmers do grow it elsewhere in the country, to provide food for cows there, not in California. In theory those farmers could grow more alfalfa and then ship it to California.
TWILLEY: But then you’d have all the trucking—that costs money and, of course, also creates pollution. Plus, those alfalfa farms just aren’t as productive as the ones in California and Arizona.
GRABER: Dan told us that they only get about three to four cuttings a year, so that’s like a third to a half as productive as California is.
TWILLEY: Surprise, surprise, this is not an easy fix. But could we at least stop exporting our water in the form of alfalfa?
FISHMAN: It does seem. It does seem crazy to ex- right? Like, you want to keep the feed close to the animal. Right? But we do have a global food supply network and… Yeah, it does seem very inefficient to move all this stuff around, especially when you’re thinking about you’re essentially importing that scarce water resource to other places.
GRABER: Like Val, most of our experts sounded dubious about whether we should be exporting water in the form of alfalfa. But they also pointed out that we export a lot of crops, and a lot of crops that are thirsty ones. Robert said the US is the largest exporter of water in the form of food.
TWILLEY: I mean, nearly three quarters of the almonds grown under irrigation in California are exported. And how do you decide that we can export almonds but we can’t export alfalfa? How do you come up with a justification for that? It’s tricky.
PUTNAM: I don’t know where that begins and ends, and we can make a decision that other countries do not deserve our crops that we grow here, whether it’s alfalfa hay, or almonds, or other crops, and there’s some sort of moral problem with doing that.
SEILER: I’m not involved in any of that and, and I’m not going to poke my nose into that, but there is very much a concern that alfalfa exporting overseas is the same as exporting water. But we operate as a free country here. That’s the mantra that we operate under. And it is what it is.
TWILLEY: Jack is proud of his freedom, and he and his neighbors like to sort out their problems without federal government intervention or regulation—but, it has to be said, the main reason that so many farmers like Jack can grow alfalfa in the desert is thanks to a huge government subsidy—a handout, really. I’m talking about the billions of dollars of taxpayer money that originally built all the dams and infrastructure to channel the Colorado for quote unquote beneficial use. AKA, agriculture.
GRABER: And so while people say it’s a free market—the market wants alfalfa, and some of that market is overseas, and farmers are willing to sell their alfalfa overseas—it’s not really a free market, because the water is subsidized. Like we said, that’s not necessarily bad, we subsidize a lot of things. But could policies change so that the water is more expensive because it’s so valuable?
TWILLEY: At the moment, remember, Jack can use as much water as he wants for super cheap as long as it’s for quote, beneficial use. But Robert told us that it’s possible that could change if the definition of beneficial changes.
GLENNON: Yeah, well, it’s always been a squishy concept and it’s—it’s elastic.
GRABER: The federal government has modified that definition before, and they could modify it again. It is one of the things on the table right now. And if beneficial use doesn’t include unlimited access to water for agriculture, then farmers might have to buy some of their water at a much higher rate, closer to what the cities pay.
TWILLEY: Jack already knows this is a possibility. When we asked him about what would happen if he had to pay more for water, this is what he told us.
SEILER: It’s just going to push ag prices higher. You’re going to be paying more at the store for products that—milk and things that we produce down here that support those industries. It’s just going to push prices even higher, but you can’t get blood out of a turnip.
GRABER: That is most definitely true, but we don’t know how much higher prices for water would actually increase ice cream and cheese prices. And also, if our minimum wage was adequate for people to live on, then slightly higher dairy prices wouldn’t be as big a deal. But that is another story.
TWILLEY: So far, solutions are looking a little thin on the ground. But there is one thing we know that works to get farmers to stop growing alfalfa and save a ton of water, and that is paying them. In fact, even though he has unlimited water, Jack isn’t growing alfalfa on all the land he could be. Because the cities of southern California are buying the water he would otherwise be using.
SEILER: Yeah, we have a fallowing agreement. Right now I’ve got 662 acres of fallow because we entered into a 35-year deal with Metropolitan Water District.
GRABER: The water district pays Jack and other farmers not to farm at all, to fallow their fields, but that could lead to the scenario we described, where dairies might not have access to as much alfalfa as they want, and then the price of milk could potentially rise. So is there a way to keep alfalfa in the fields but also save water at the same time?
TWILLEY: I’m so glad you asked, Cynthia, because, as it turns out, alfalfa can be grown perfectly well using quite a bit less water than Jack uses.
FISHMAN: It’s important to remember that we’re farming that crop the way we were a century ago.
TWILLEY: Val works for The Alfalfa Project, which has recently renamed itself as Common Good Water. It was founded by a fourth generation farmer called Tyler who was frustrated that we were still using this century old technique of flooding alfalfa fields.
GRABER: After a few years of trial and error, Tyler came up with a way to water alfalfa using a precision, subsurface drip irrigation system, and he tested it on more than two thousand acres
FISHMAN: We saved about half on average over those 2,200 acres. So then it would be lower than almonds and pistachios. It would be lower than rice.
TWILLEY: Let me just repeat this, because it’s a big deal. Using this subsurface drip system cut alfalfa’s water use in half. And not only did it not reduce the yield—it improved it!
FISHMAN: As far as the crop goes, it is actually much more healthy when we deliver those nutrients and the water below ground. So it actually makes the crop have a higher nutritional density, which means it’s better for the cows. The farmer actually gets a better yield.
TWILLEY: And yet, 99 percent of all the alfalfa acreage in California is still flood irrigated.
GRABER: Val and her colleagues want to change that, they have major ambitions for this project, their goal right now is to convert about a third of those flood-irrigated fields to drip irrigation. It would have an amazingly huge impact on how much water is being used to grow alfalfa—it could save 300 billion gallons of water annually—but they have to convince the farmers.
FISHMAN: That has been the biggest thing, is that the farmers are like, no way I can apply half the amount of water that I used to and have a productive crop. They just don’t believe it. Of course, once they start to see it working and see the yields and see the healthy crop, that helps a lot. But when you’re first getting started. You know, it’d be hard to believe that you can apply half the water you used to and have a productive crop.
TWILLEY: The other thing Val hears from reluctant farmers is exactly what we heard from Jack when we asked him about whether he would consider switching from flood irrigation to subsurface drip in his fields. Basically, from his point of view, putting in the pipes and the filters is expensive, and the drip tape is a kind of high maintenance.
SEILER: You have to run all that plastic line out there. Every 40 inches, there’s a plastic drip tube out there. And every coyote that can smell water digs it up. And every gopher that’s thirsty chews it up. So you constantly got a guy walking around the field with a five gallon bucket of repair parts, digging in wet and mud, trying to fix a plastic tube. And it… it’s a lot.
GRABER: Gophers are a pain in the ass, and the system does cost money, but the real reason Jack doesn’t do any of this is he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t need to save water because he’s allowed to use as much as he wants, and all that water is cheap.
GLENNON: Right. Well, Jack’s got a good thing going.
TWILLEY: Yes, he does. But Val has some tools to try to convince the holdouts like Jack. First of all, she has a robust gopher management plan that farmers can implement to protect their precious drip tape. But more importantly, she has some financial carrots.
FISHMAN: It is basically a business model where instead of only working on upfront incentives with farmers, we are paying them annually for the amount of water that they save using this new system. Because then they can put that into their financial model, right? As, oh, I’m going to be getting a payment based on how much water I save every year.
GRABER: This business model is different from paying Jack to fallow his land, it’s paying farmers for how much water they AREN’T using on their active fields. We keep our alfalfa *and* we save water.
TWILLEY: Right now, Val is taking this to state officials—maybe the state of California wants to invest so they can bank those water savings—and she’s also pitching it to companies that want to show off how green they are.
FISHMAN: Companies really like those co-benefits, right. They like that they can be a part of something bigger and keep that farmland in production.
TWILLEY: So subsurface drip irrigation is a real fix. It could save a lot of water if farmers could be convinced to do it, probably with the help of yet more subsidies. It’s obviously only part of the solution to the larger Colorado river problem, but honestly we need all the solutions we can get.
HOLLOWAY: I think, longer term, we need to recognize that this isn’t just a 20, 30, 40-year drought that we’re going to come out of the other end and things are going to be normal again. That isn’t ever happening. I do think we are in a drought. I do think the drought will ease up. But we still are facing an aridification of the west that isn’t going to ease up. So it won’t always be as bad as it is now, but we will never be able to go back to where we were. Now we can argue about what’s being grown and whether you’re eating it and how you’re eating it. That’s a good argument to have and it’s going to be had. But I think there’s got to be a future for agriculture.
GRABER: And whatever that agriculture is, alfalfa will likely be a part of it.
SEILER: I don’t see it leaving. In my lifetime. I don’t know what you’re going to put in there to get more bang for your buck for animal feed.
TWILLEY: In this future version of alfalfa growing in the West, Jack might have to pay more for his water, a little closer to the true cost of it. He and other farmers will all have to use less of it, however that new irrigation technology gets paid for. We may all have to pay more for dairy, to account for the cost of the water embedded in our cheese and ice cream—or we could choose to consume less of it.
GRABER: Unsurprisingly, it’s going to be complicated and hard to solve the water issue. But we can’t ignore alfalfa anymore.
O’DELL: It’s just so complex that I think people sometimes are like, okay, I know that we don’t have water. I know we have to deal with it. But I don’t know how we deal with it.
GRABER: Rob told us that the easiest thing for politicians to do is to continue the status quo—why would they want to piss off their constituents and potentially get kicked out of office? It’s easier to kick the problem down the road. It takes a lot of guts to make this type of change.
GLENNON: The point is, you know, we need to recognize that what’s in front of us is a crisis. And we have the skill set and the tools to fix the crisis. But what we really need more than anything else is the moral courage and the political will to act.
HOLLOWAY: There are plenty of paths forward where we crash and burn because we don’t manage it well. And there are multitudes of paths forward that will continue to be a sustainable, resilient, robust, vital west.
TWILLEY: I live in and love the West, so of course I care about alfalfa, and I care that we make smart choices right now about how we fix the alfalfa-water problem. But, really, everyone who loves cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, dairy in all its delicious forms—this affects all of us.
GRABER: It’s exactly 100 years since that disastrous Colorado compact—let’s try not to screw it up again.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Dan Putnam, Jack Seiler, Val Fishman, Jim Holloway, John Weisheit, John Szczepanski, Robert Glennon, and Rob O’Dell. We have links to their farms, research, books, and projects on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to producer Claudia Geib for all her hard work on this episode. And, of course, special thanks to The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism, for their support of this episode.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with something very different. Let’s just say—sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t! And we don’t.