Is it about the alfalfa? Thinking Like a River Basin…

Headed toward the river on my bike yesterday, I ended up riding for a while with an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while. I mentioned I was working on a Colorado River book (it’s my standard excuse for “not having a lot of miles in my legs”, as the cyclists say) and talk turned to solutions.

My friend suggested growing less alfalfa – a whole lot less – might be one good option for addressing the basin’s supply-demand imbalance.

It was a great setup for what I’m trying to accomplish in the book. But I still have to work on the out-of-breath five minute version of my premise.

Morelos Dam

Morelos Dam, US-Mexico Border - the end of the Colorado River

It goes something like this: Sure, growing a lot less alfalfa and lettuce and the like is one solution. Or halting growth in Phoenix and Vegas (and Albuquerque?). Heck, how about abandoning those crazy southwestern cities? Or at least ending the practice of outdoor watering in them. Or massive investment in desal could do the trick.

The arithmetic version of the solution set is open-ended, but you get the idea. There are lots of ways to make the supply-demand equation balance.

The interesting part to me is how we get there. Because none of them are easy, and all will have opposition. What are the institutional processes by which we will go about choosing from among the various options, the political and legal framework with which we’ll either succeed or fail at this tough problem?

That’s why the new “Thinking Like a River Basin” report from Sarah Bates and the folks at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Carp Carpe Diem West so interested me.

If you’re looking for answers to the Colorado River Basin’s growing supply-demand problems, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for an exposition of the problem space, from the perspective of the people in the institutions responsible for working the problems, the report is invaluable.

Bates and her colleagues interviewed 29 experts and decision makers. We get the list of folks interviewed, but all the comments in the report are anonymous, which has the result of giving a terrific flavor for the range of views held by the players at the table. There’s no effort to be prescriptive – to say what ought to happen. Instead, Bates and her colleagues simply plumbed the depth of two great questions:

  1. If the Colorado River continues to be managed pursuant to current laws, including the Interim Guidelines [contained in the 2007 Record of Decision], what conditions do you foresee in 15 years in terms of water shortages, water security, and interstate conflicts?
  2. What might be necessary to achieve a more satisfactory outcome in this time period and beyond? We’re interested in your thoughts about how to improve decision-making processes, certainty, meaningful participation by stakeholders, and political/financial support for innovative management solutions.

Key results include the fact that, while not everyone agrees that climate change is the reason, there is widespread agreement that water supply stress will only increase over time. Everyone seems to get that the river’s use is maxed out, and that shortage, both in the literal meaning of the word and also as formally defined in the 2007 shortage sharing agreement, is likely sooner rather than later.

Bates found widespread fear of litigation, while at the same time a widespread commitment to try to avoid litigation.

No one seems to want to reopen the Colorado River Compact, but there is a great deal of interest in continuing the processes embodied in the 2007 shortage sharing agreement – the continued tweaking of the Law of the River, which is more flexible and less fixed than many realize.

The most interesting part, to me, was the interest (at least on the part of some) in the creation of some sort of forum “to facilitate basinwide conversations”.

One of the report’s key conclusions:

Although some of the water management challenges facing the Colorado River Basin are physical, many are political. The division of the basin into two halves at Lee Ferry, and the allocation of entitlements based on that division, offers both a firm anchor for enforcing responsibilities and an arbitrary separation of a single river basin. At least some of today’s conflicts could be alleviated by a basinwide approach to water management, optimizing use of the basin’s extensive storage facilities to meet an overall water budget rather than focusing on water deliveries at Lee Ferry, and considering additional agreements similar to the Interim Guidelines to address shortages.

updated: Fixed one of my all time favorite typos – “Carp Diem” instead of “Carpe Diem”. Seize the fish? Fish the day? Thanks to GJ for pointing it out.


  1. Those three paragraphs starting at the photo make a pretty good pitch. Stacks up the straw men, sets them on fire and then asks the question that shows why it’s hard. Makes me interested in reading the result.

  2. There are many solutions to the water dilemma confronting California and other states. To halt the planting of one or more crops might be one way to free-up some water supplies but such action also creates other problems. If alfalfa was no longer planted in our state, where would our dairy industry receive its primary food supply? Delivering alfalfa hay from other states would create a gigantic impact on the carbon footprint resulting for the hundreds of trucks that would be required to deliver the food supply from out of state. It could also have a significant impact on the price consumers pay for dairy products. I would hope the author’s research for his book material would consider these and other consequences.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  3. Mike –

    Thanks for the comments, and for dropping by.

    I appreciate your argument re the importance of the particular water use of your constituency. The problem that interests me is that every constituency makes a similar argument for the importance of their particular use of water. What I’m interested in is the mechanism we, as a society, will use to find accommodation among all of those competing interests given the supply-demand imbalance we’ve created across the West.

    What would your suggested solution be to that problem? How might we find those accommodations that would bring supply and demand into balance. Because simply having everyone defend their turf, as you appear to want to do here, ain’t gonna get us there.

  4. The problem is easier to solve with markets. Nobody care what you use the water for, as long as you pay. Farmers would be the prime beneficiaries of markets b/c (1) they have most water rights now (net sellers), (2) they could trade for reliability, and (3) they could grow alfalfa without having people on their backs. (I’ve written about alfalfa; the key idea is NOT water use, but profit/acre-foot.)

  5. Reflecting on this post, the externalities post and the desalination post following:

    1. A grand, global solution is likely impossible. Look at the Delta wars as an example. No constituency is going to tolerate being told that it is going to bear the brunt of the ‘permanent’ fix on the CR.

    2. Trying to set up the grand fix by changing state /.federal law in advance is also unlikely to work. Despite DZ’s wishes, water pricing will always be political. While I don’t know anything about Nevada law, I’m quite sure that the person who proposes substantially raising retail water rates in Las Vegas beyond what they already are will find herself out of office in short order. People prefer drought declarations and water restrictions to high rates, so far as I’ve seen.

    3. IID and the Salton Sea present high-profile versions of common problems. Yes, ag discharges are an externality. This is a serious nationwide (indeed, global) problem that cannot be addressed by starting with Imperial County farming. What about dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico? Substantially reducing ag discharge will require new federal and state legislation that takes a fresh look at the environmental cost of farming.

    4. IID’s externalities do have a few interesting twists. Reducing water use lowers the level of the sea. What is to be done with that new land, and who pays? If habitat is put there under DFG jurisdiction, does that use even more water, lowering the sea further? The Sea supports the Pacific Flyway, because ther’s been so much unmitigated habitat destruction in the last 100 years. Whose fault is that? And the Sea was inevitably going to go hypersaline if farmers hadn’t started farming Imperial County. Who should bear, then, the cost of keeping some avian habitat at the Sea, Californians or all Americans or even Canadians as well? Or do we let the Sea go hypersaline and let birds adapt?

    Note that capturing the externalities associated with the changing environment at the Salton Sea require state and, likely, federal legislation. This is the opposite of what I argued for above, which was letting the parties to the Law of the River work out their issues amongst themselves incrementally. This is why the CR is hard stuff.

    By the way, swapping desalination water in Carlsbad or Long Beach for Lake Mead water may be a good way to overcome short term impacts of drought in urban areas. No one is going to farm with desal.

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