Inefficient policy relating to the Colorado River Basin as well as inefficient farming practices are contributing to the drought in the Western U.S. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to 20 of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. and approximately 40 million people rely on the river for their water. Environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten began investigating the U.S. water crisis a year and a half ago for the ProPublica series “Killing the Colorado”. Lustgarten recently discussed on NPR that he initially thought the water crisis was a result of climate change however Lustgarten’s research suggests that the policy and mismanagement of the Colorado River’s water is having a greater effect on the water crisis in the west.
In 1922, seven Western states- Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and California- drew up an agreement to divide the waters of the Colorado River. However the states overestimated how much water the Colorado River could provide. Before drought, before the climate change debate, and before expansion and population growth, the states developed policies based on a false premise of having more water than what existed. The over-allocation of the Colorado River means the Colorado River would be depleted if each state take the maximum amount of what they are allowed through this agreement.
Western state farmers and their water rights greatly impact the water supply in the western states. In the state of Colorado farmer’s water rights are apportioned on a first come first serve basis. Therefore the first people to move to Colorado have the most senior rights to water from the Colorado River Basin and people who have moved Colorado later have less access to the water. The preservation of these water rights have become enormously important to the value of land and the farming business in the West. To further complicate this issue states have laws in place that stipulate if a farmer does not use the full amount of water supplied to each farmer, the state has the option of confiscating the water and giving it to the next farmer in line for access to water from the Colorado River. Therefore each year whether a farmer needs the water or not, he will use all the water given to him in order to prevent the state from taking his water and giving it to another farmer. This has caused farmers to be wasteful with water by flooding grass pastures and giving their crops as much water as they can handle. Scientists from the USDA’s Conservation Service have stated the amount of water saved by farmers in Colorado would increase the water in the Lake Powell reservoir. An increase in water in the reservoir would mean states such as California, Arizona and New Mexico would have a larger supply of water lessening the impact of drought.
Lustgarten also discussed inefficient farming methods in western states that have contributed to the use of vast amounts of water. Cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops a farmer can grow, as cotton requires about six times as much water compared to lettuce and requires approximately 60 percent more water than wheat. Cotton has long been a staple of Arizona’s agriculture economy and there are over 100,000 acres of cotton grown in Arizona each year. Arizona is arguable the worst off when it comes to water supply from the Colorado River Basin therefore the decision to continue growing one of the thirstiest crops is inefficient and depletes the already low water supply in Arizona. In recent years the demand for cotton has decreased causing the price of cotton to drop therefore farming cotton is not as profitable as other crops. Lustgarten found that under the U.S. farm bill, the federal government heavily subsidizes cotton. Farmers in the study stated that if they did not grow cotton they would not be eligible for the federal subsidy which in turn would hurt their entire farming operation. Lustgarten estimates, if Arizona farmers switched from growing cotton to growing wheat it would save enough water to supply about 1.4 million people with water each year.
The second crop Lustgarten says attributes to the water shortages in west would be alfalfa. Lustgarten states that alfalfa is the crop that uses the most water from the Colorado River Basin. There are many uses for Alfalfa however alfalfa is most commonly used to feed cattle. While cattle do support the U.S.’s meat and dairy industries Lundgarten’s studies suggest a majority of the alfalfa grown in the Western U.S. is being exported to support other countries meat and dairy industries. There are large alfalfa farms in California and Arizona that are owned by the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries. Lessening America’s consumption of beef could also improve water supply in the West. Due to the high water intensity in a steak, Lustgarten calculated that if Americans ate one less meal of meat each week the amount of water that would be saved would be equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Colorado River.
Lustgarten’s study suggest that in order for the U.S. to combat the water shortages in western states, new policy and more efficient farming practices must be implemented. Improvements in prioritizing which crops are grown and changes to state legislation regarding farmer’s access to water could make western states more self-sustaining in the future.
To listen to the full podcast visit http://www.npr.org/2015/06/25/417430662/how-a-historical-blunder-helped-create-the-water-crisis-in-the-west
For more information about this article contact Michael May at Michael.email@example.com