22 December 2008

Growing Alfalfa in the Desert

JWT sent me this trip update 2 weeks ago:

For a long time, I have wanted to drive AROUND the Salton Sea, e.g., the east side of the Sea. Yesterday, we decided it was a good time to do that. When we got to the South end of the Sea, what we saw astonished me!

In an absolute DESERT, we are growing alfalfa. The fields go to the horizon, and there are hundreds and hundreds of stacks of alfalfa. This is in a place where the summer temperature reaches 120-125 degrees! And they are growing it by flooding fields. And without water, the land is absolutely barren. This is where 20% of all California's water is used.

I know that the Imperial Irrigation District is one of our favorites so you should enjoy this insanity.

Not only this outrage, but most of their customers are the dairy farmers hundreds and hundreds of miles away.

Until yesterday, my opposition to alfalfa has been intellectual and mathematical. Now it is visceral!

Was he sure that he saw IID land? Yes -- he says that "the photographs were taken on 111 between Calipatria and Niland, which as nearly as I can tell from the IID Annual Report is dead centered in the IID."

Note that only 15% of California's water is used to grow alfalfa, but 23% is used for irrigated pasture, hay and alfalfa. IID uses about 3MAF on many crops, but IID uses about 7.5% ALL water in California, and 75% of the water California gets from the Colorado River.

So why do farmers grow alfalfa in IID? Because they only pay $17/AF of water (recall that urban consumers pay over $1,000/AF for water).

I used to think that $17 was cheap, until I read this* (via JC):
The Turlock Irrigation District's irrigation increase includes raising the basic charge, now $20 per acre, to $23 in 2009 and $26 in 2010. This charge will cover the basic allotment of water, which is higher in wet years than in dry years. Water exceeding this allotment will cost $15 for the first acre-foot and $20 per acre-foot thereafter....

The Modesto Irrigation District's farmers pay $23.50 per acre for the basic allotment of water, then $11.75 per acre-foot.
Didja see that! If you use enough water, you get more at half price! Those rates are not just crazy low,** but the decreasing block rate structure makes them uneconomical (and perhaps criminal, given the current drought). I used to think that IID was the Champion of Mismanaged Water,*** but I am amazed to find that TID/MID are vying to be even more foolish. Egads!

Bottom Line: Farmers "waste" water because it's too cheap to conserve. IID and others need to raise prices/allow markets to reallocate their water supply before their water is seized due to chronic mismanagement.
* The link isn't to the same story that JC emailed to me -- because I couldn't find it online. Worst website of the month: The Modesto Bee.

** Yes, I know that prices reflect the cost of delivery. What they SHOULD reflect is the value of water, but that will not happen until water rights are more widely traded and/or water prices reflect scarcity.

*** IID, which already has problems with demand exceeding supply (duh! I wonder why) is imposing rationing in a typically backwards way (across the board).


  1. JWT said: "Until yesterday, my opposition to alfalfa has been intellectual and mathematical. Now it is visceral!" Oh, dear, hate speech against a helpless plant. 'Taint the plant, it's the policy. Without more functional markets, farmers will market their water via their crops, which is the only avenue available. Alfalfa is a very valuable crop, which any "intellectual and mathematical" investigation will confirm. Processing tomatoes are even more profitable than alfalfa, but they can only be grown in certain areas, and the state's capacity for processing them, and the world's demand for eating them, is limited. But that's beside the point.
    Without clear, strong support for water markets from regulators and the environmental community, farmers will remain fearful that if they participate, they will end up with no water and no money. A secondary and often overlooked problem is that many farmers rent a large portion of their ground from absentee landlords. Under some water sales scenarios, the land owner would get all the dough, and the tenant would be out of business. These tenants tend to control the Boards of Directors of water districts.

  2. Hi David,

    have you seen this presentation by the Pacific Institute on agricultural watering reforms?

    Perhaps you could have a post with your thoughts/critique of this presentation.

  3. Hi Benjamin,

    I've critiqued that report extensively...

    Start here.

  4. Kudos for openly mentioning a great frustration to me --- the Modesto Bee website. I'm a computer klutz, but know when something is working or not. We subscribe to the paper version of the ModBee, but whenever I see a story I want to electronically send to colleagues I know I'm in for a frustrating challenge.

  5. One thing about Imperial Valley - soil salinity is a big issue, limiting the crops that can be grown and, even more critically, limiting the options for irrigation. Flooding is necessary to flush salts from the soil (into the Salton Sea), otherwise the soil quickly gets too salty to grow any crops.

    Which of course means it's a crazy place to situate a major agricultural enterprise, but there it is. 100+ inches of evaporation per year, <3 inches of rain. No groundwater resource to speak of, either (just as well, it would be polluted by ag return flow by now anyway). Good soil and plenty of sunshine, though. That soil is in part lake-bottom, because the Colorado River used to periodically (maybe every 200-300 years) change course and fill the basin with fresh water, then change back and let the giant lake (Cahuilla) evaporate.

  6. You're not a California, you're from another country--so you should be concerned with own country and leave your comments about California to those who live in the US. Raising fees for water?--what do you know? Fees are high enough already. Fees for irrigation should be lowered, not raised, especially for organic farmers--may be they can be lowered at the expense of non-organic farmers. The only waste of water occurs when people water useless lawns in the city, or run stupid fountains.

  7. @Anonymous -- Both JWT and I are "California," so we have some idea and concern for what happens with water in CA. (I now live in the Netherlands, yes.) Your other comments reflect a biased view towards organic irrigation that serves yourself instead of the public interest (read Section X of the CA constitution). Keep reading blog posts here on irrigation, shortages, farming skills and willingness to pay, and you will learn something.


Spammers, don't bother. I delete spam.