Federal officials are cutting off water to some California farms stuck in the worst drought on record. At the same time Arizona farmers are irrigating their fields with the diminishing Colorado River. They’re using the water to grow most of the country’s winter vegetables, and even shipping some crops to China. In the final part of the series Pipe Dreams, a look at the controversy of indirectly exporting water overseas.
Colorado River water reaches David Sharp’s farm in southwestern Arizona in a narrow artery called a “lateral” that runs along his fields. He releases just enough to soak an acre.
Sharp said today most farmers use a laser to level their land so the plants are irrigated evenly and little water is wasted. He also rotates his crops to keep his soil healthy. Methods like these made it possible for Yuma County farmers to reduce the amount of water they use by half in the last two decades.
"We in agriculture are business people first," Sharp said. "And we have a finite resource. Be it water, or fertilizer, or fuel, any of those things, we are not going to waste any of that because if we waste it, it affects our bottom line."
Sharp was thinking about his bottom line when he recently decided to sell his alfalfa to China, where there is huge demand.
"It really has exploded over the last three years," Sharp said. "China wants to eat the same things we want to eat. They want cheese, eggs, milk. They don’t have the feed, the protein feed, to give them that."
But critics like University of Arizona regents professor Robert Glennon said, it’s not just alfalfa these farmers are shipping, they’re exporting the Southwest’s water supply in the middle of a crisis.
"Alfalfa is a water-guzzling crop," Glennon said.
Glennon, who wrote Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis And What To Do About It, said farmers like Sharp are shipping more than 50 billion gallons of water overseas embedded in their crops. That’s enough drinking water for half a million families.
"It’s fine to allow for that export but shouldn’t those farmers also be able to work out deals for the water with California cities or even with the city of Las Vegas," Glennon said. "And I expect a city like Las Vegas would pay handsomely for a small amount of water that’s currently used to grow alfalfa for export."
Farmers argue their water consumption is necessary because growing cities need water and food. At the Southwest Ag Summit held recently in Yuma, I noticed a bumper sticker on a truck in the parking lot that says: “No Farms No Food.”
Farmer Jonathan Dinsmore pointed to his cotton shirt and says, “no farms no clothes.”
"So pick your poison," Dinsmore said.
Dinsmore is a fourth-generation farmer. His family grows alfalfa, lettuce and wheat. He says it’s important to keep the crops moving, and right now demand overseas is hot.
"I would say the decision to export, pretty much for us, it weighs solely on our buyer," Dinsmore said. "If we have somebody come in with a bid $20 more a ton, we are likely less to consider where it’s going and how quickly can they get it out of the shop and how quickly can they get a check to us so we can continue to operate."
And Dinsmore said he and other farmers are not squandering the water. The majority of growers in the region are willing to gamble with new water-saving methods.
"Yearly we’re facing diminishing resources," Dinsmore said. "And they’re saying by 2055 we’re going to have nine billion people in this world, as opposed to the seven and a half or so we have now. How can we maintain that?"
That’s why everyone I talk to said both farmers and cities need to work to conserve water.