PALO VERDE, Calif. — Despite a record drought, a few California desert communities are blooming year round with the thirstiest crop in the state, alfalfa.
About 100 miles from San Diego, the Imperial Valley and Palo Verde — part of the Sonoran Desert — see about 3 inches of rainfall a year. The region is in its 15th year of drought conditions, but that hasn’t slowed its output of alfalfa, wheat, cotton, grass and hay.
While the area is also a significant source of winter vegetables, alfalfa is the top crop. University of California at San Diego professor and water use expert Steve Erie estimates that in Palo Verde, more than half the water and more than half the acreage goes to alfalfa.
We’ve been beating up on almonds,” he said, referring to plentiful recent headlines about how much water it takes to produce a single nut. “But alfalfa uses two and a half times as much water as almonds.”
He calls it “water usage on steroids.”
Every day, fields are flooded using a massive irrigation system, primarily for alfalfa hay. A series of canals delivers Colorado River water to the area’s 500,000 acres of farmland. This farming community of fewer than 200,000 people uses more than 880 billion gallons of river water every year. The entire rest of Southern California uses less than half of that.
California water law, like a few other Western states, is based on a simple premise: first in time, first in right. In other words, whoever got to the river first got the rights to it. According to Erie, water rights holders in the Imperial Valley control 75 percent of California’s claims on the Colorado River, which means they control how much water cities like Los Angeles and San Diego get.
“It is the holy grail,” said Erie. “And it is power.”
Some of that water is used to grow hay year round to be sold to local dairy farms and shipped overseas. The area is a major exporter of alfalfa hay to the United Arab Emirates and Asia. Most of that hay is used to feed cows.
Farmer Bill Lewis says that until recently a fellow farmer grew hay that was used as feed for hamsters in Japan. “They used to sell it for pellets for hamster feed,” he said. “But now they don’t do it, so somebody else took it over. Competition I guess.”
But if the nation wants hamburgers and steaks, they need to let hay grow in the Imperial Valley, said farmer Al Kalin, whose family has been farming the area for a century.
“We do have to feed the nation,” he said. “And where is the water going to go? Farming or swimming pools and golf courses?”
“I think people don’t understand what it takes to grow the crops,” he added. “They aren’t cognizant of what’s involved. It takes water.”
Under California water law, animal feed — even for hamsters — is considered a beneficial use and is entitled to as much water as necessary. It’s also a profitable industry.
Erie said $240 to $300 of water can yield crops worth about $1,000, if not more. “That’s a great business to get into,” he said.
But with California now experiencing an unprecedented drought, and residents and businesses facing penalties if they don’t cut back consumption, California Water Impact Network’s Carolee Krieger is among those questioning whether California’s water rights need to be revisited.
“They have the water very cheaply,” she said. “And I think in this drought, the idea of senior water rights has started to be questioned.”
But changing well-established water laws would be difficult, if only because of the expense. Compensating a farmer’s right to water would be astronomical in cost, even through eminent domain, experts told America Tonight.
“It’ll be much higher — multiples of 10, 100 or even higher — relative to the purchase right of a home and the property around it,” Erie said.
People wanting to change California’s water laws will most certainly have a fight on their hands.
“You try to change water rights and you’re going to have 100 lawsuits from all different directions,” Lewis said. “And that’s just the way it’s been ever since they’ve populated this country.”
Responding to the reality of the drought, some farmers like Kalin are switching to drip irrigation systems and are fallowing crops. But those actions are voluntary and can even be profitable for the farmers. On the question of water rights, he said, “We have the rights to the water. I don’t see what the argument is.”