The lush lawns and green golf courses of Southern California are an emblem of the desert Southwest’s dependence on the Colorado River. But they’re just a small part of the demands placed on this crucial water resource in times of both drought and plenty. The far bigger part, as much as 80%, comes from millions of acres of irrigated farms across the parched region.
Those farms play a crucial role in the economic health of California and the desert Southwest. But their water rights and consumption are increasingly at odds with the region’s massive growth. As the seven states of the Colorado River Basin seek to preserve the river, agriculture must give up more.
The American Southwest has been farmed for thousands of years. But it was only in 1901 that the first irrigated water from the Colorado River reached California’s forbidding Imperial County, where summer temperatures typically reach 110 degrees and rain is scarce. A decade later, irrigation brought Colorado River waters to Yuma, Arizona.
Even a century ago, farmers and other settlers were attuned to the fact that the Colorado River isn’t limitless. So in 1922, seven states signed the Colorado River Compact and divvied up the river flows. The agreement was intended to override state legal doctrines, developed during the California Gold Rush, that award water rights basically to whoever shows up and uses the water first.
Since the desert population was still thin, and most of the people who needed water were growing crops or raising livestock, agriculture secured the lion’s share of water rights for the region. That imbalance persists even as Southwest cities have exploded in population. When reservoirs such as Lake Mead run low, these senior water users are the last to have their allocations cut. It’s a situation that doesn’t exactly encourage conservation by those who have rights to the most water.
Today, roughly 500,000 acres in and around Imperial County are cultivated with irrigation, with the bulk of the land devoted to growing alfalfa and other forage that feeds California’s dairy industry, the nation’s largest. Growing that forage in a desert climate uses massive amounts of water: The Imperial Irrigation District is the single largest user of Colorado River water, exceeding what’s consumed by the entire state of Arizona, golf courses included.
In Arizona, farmers in and around Yuma are also the top users of the Colorado, where they grow — among other crops — 90% of the U.S. and Canadian winter leafy greens supply. Salads in January would be scarcer around North America, and far more expensive, without them.
It’s not just lettuce that grows in the desert. Population growth across the Southwest has outpaced national rates for decades, building up one of the country’s most prosperous — and thirsty — regions, from Phoenix to San Diego. Meanwhile, climate change and a decades-long drought are wreaking havoc on the Colorado, depleting reservoirs such as Lake Mead, to levels that force regulators to demand that farmers and cities cut water use.
In 2021 the federal government declared shortages in Lake Mead that forced Arizona to limit and even end Colorado River allocations to certain agricultural regions. Farmers with access to groundwater can still work their land. But those who aren’t so lucky have fallowed acres, affecting livelihoods, communities and — ultimately — consumers of their crops. Meanwhile, in suburban Arizona, housing and other development is running up against rules that require 100-year supplies of water before building permits are granted. Where communities will find that water is a controversial question.
The most obvious answer is that they can obtain the water from farmers who still have it. This isn’t a new idea. For decades, development around Phoenix has depended — in part — on converting agricultural water rights to municipal use. More recently, private investors have been buying up agricultural water rights around the state in the hope of reselling them to homebuilders.
Government, too, has become involved. In 2003, San Diego — desperate to diversify and secure its water supply — purchased decades worth of water from the Imperial Irrigation District. In return, Imperial farmers agreed to temporary (15 years) fallowing of lands as water efficiency and conservation measures were implemented.
The deal is worth emulating in spirit, if not detail. Last year the federal government ordered the seven Colorado River basin states to commit to a roughly 25% cut in use. Farmers will have to give back the most, and they won’t be bought cheap. Fortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act contained $4 billion for drought mitigation efforts in the Southwest, and some of that money will be dedicated to fallowing fields and boosting conservation. What needs to happen next is for farmers and the government to agree on a price for their water, and the production that they must fallow when they give it up.
As a result, farming communities will suffer the loss of crop yields, associated industries and jobs. Taxpayers will be stuck financing the heavy cost of fallowing those acres and halting all that economic activity. And consumers, already buffeted by inflation, may find the cost of everything from California cheddar to iceberg lettuce rising even higher.
Nonetheless, a deal, whenever it happens, will be good for everyone. Development will have water to fuel its growth, and farmers will have financial incentives to invest in conservation that could pay off with greater efficiencies and yields. In time, as water use rebalances between farm and city, that natural tendency to innovate promises better outcomes for the desert Southwest and for the nation.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.