Part of the issue The 100-year-old-mistake that’s reshaping the American West from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Last May, 30 miles east of the Las Vegas Strip, a barrel containing a dead body washed up on the shores of Lake Mead, the country’s largest water reservoir. In the following months, more human remains surfaced, along with a World War II-era boat and dozens of other vessels.
While these discoveries might sound like the opening to a crime thriller, they’re more than just morbid curiosities — they’re flashing warning signs that the Colorado River, which supplies water and hydropower to 40 million Americans, is in crisis.
Along with Lake Powell 300 miles away, Lake Mead stores water for the lower states along the Colorado River: California, Arizona, and Nevada as well as Mexico and around 20 Indigenous reservations. But a climate change-induced “megadrought” has led to higher rates of water evaporation in recent decades and a drastic reduction in water supply, with Lake Mead currently at just 29 percent capacity. The streamflow on the northern part of the river, which supplies Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and five Indigenous reservations, has fallen 20 percent over the last century.
Heavy snowfall in the Rocky Mountains this winter should give Lake Powell a modest boost as it melts, but not enough to assuage fears over the lakes reaching what’s termed “dead pool” status, when water levels drop too low to flow through the dams. To avoid that fate, the federal government has urged states to cut their water use.
But despite news stories about drought-stricken Americans in the West taking shorter showers and ditching lawns to conserve their water supply, those efforts are unlikely to amount to much — residential water use accounts for just 13 percent of water drawn from the Colorado River. According to research published in Nature Sustainability, the vast majority of water is used by farmers to irrigate crops.
And when you zoom in to look at exactly which crops receive the bulk of the Colorado River’s water, 70 percent goes to alfalfa, hay, corn silage, and other grasses that are used to fatten up cattle for beef and cows for dairy. Some of the other crops, like soy, corn grain, wheat, barley, and even cotton, may also be used for animal feed.
“Meat production is the most environmentally stressful thing people do, and reducing it would make a huge impact on the planet,” said Ben Ruddell, a professor of informatics and computing at Northern Arizona University and co-author of the Nature Sustainability paper, over email to Vox. “We’ve known this for a long time.”
The stress on the West’s water supply due to alfalfa is especially acute in Utah: A staggering 68 percent of the state’s available water is used to grow alfalfa for livestock feed, even though it’s responsible for a tiny 0.2 percent of the state’s income. Last year, the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune, declared that “it’s time for Utah to buy out alfalfa farmers and let the water flow.”
California takes more water from the Colorado River than any other state, and most of it goes to the Imperial Valley in the southern part of the state. It’s one of the most productive agricultural regions in the US, producing two-thirds of America’s vegetables during winter months. But the majority of the Imperial Valley’s farmland is dedicated to alfalfa and various grasses for livestock.
In Arizona, Phoenix’s backup water supply is being drained to grow alfalfa by Fondomonte, owned by Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, which it ships 8,000 miles back to the Middle East to feed its domestic herds. (Water-starved Saudi Arabia banned growing alfalfa and some other animal feed crops within its own borders in 2018.) Across the 17 Western states, at least 10 percent of alfalfa is shipped to Asia and the Middle East where meat and dairy consumption is low compared to the US but on the rise.
A drought is the product of two interlocking factors: supply and demand. We can point to climate change for the drought that’s drying up the water supply that is the Colorado River, but we have to reckon with the fact that the West’s already limited water is primarily used to grow a low-value crop, alfalfa, while cities are left to spend heavily on water-saving infrastructure to keep the H2O running and ensure reserves. And ironically, all that alfalfa is used to produce beef and dairy — two food groups that themselves contribute significantly to climate change. In other words, we’re using water supplies that have been shrunk in part by climate change to produce food that will in turn worsen climate change.
The West’s water squeeze can be explained by poor planning in its past, but it raises a difficult question for its future: As local and state governments are forced to adapt their water use to a changing climate, do we also need to start thinking about adapting our diets?
Why there are so many water-guzzling farms in the desert
When I asked John Matthews, executive director of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, why there are so many water-intensive farming operations in the desert ecosystem of the Southwestern US, he had a simple answer: If we could start from scratch, we would not have designed the system we have today.
“I don’t think a farmer would design it this way,” he said.
The West’s water system has its roots in the 1862 federal Homestead Act, which gave Western settlers up to 160 acres of land for free if they agreed to improve it and stay on it for at least five years, and later offered even more land at a reduced price if they agreed to farm it. But because there was so little water and irrigation was shoddy, Congress passed the Reclamation Act in 1902 to “reclaim” arid land in the West for agriculture. The federal government sold tracts of land to fund massive irrigation damming projects to divert rivers and streams to farms. Armed with cheap land and water backed by federal price guarantees — and aided by a warm climate that permitted an expanded growing season — Western settlers began to farm cotton and alfalfa.
Choosing to put farms on arid land wasn’t the only short-sighted mistake the region made. In 1922, negotiators representing the seven states that share the river’s water grossly overestimated just how much water it could provide, which locked in over-apportionment and thus overuse.
Of course, government officials at the time also couldn’t foresee a historic, climate change-fueled drought, or the growth of sprawling metropolises like Phoenix and Las Vegas in the decades to come that would compete with agriculture for limited resources. (In 1920, Arizona’s total population was just 334,000 people — around 20 percent of Phoenix’s current population — while all of Nevada had only 77,000 people.)
And most importantly — and at the heart of the conflict today between California and its fellow Colorado River users — is how water rights were obtained.
In the Eastern US, water rights are determined using what’s called the riparian doctrine — everyone who lives near a body of water has an equal right to use it, and is entitled to a “reasonable use” of it. The Western US, as is the case in so many other areas, does things differently.
Water rights in the West were determined — under state laws — by what’s called the prior appropriation doctrine, which gives senior water rights to whoever first uses the water, a right they retain so long as they continue to use it. And those rights were mostly snatched up by miners during the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s and farmers in the following decades who came to the West after the Homestead and Reclamation Acts (and some of that water and land was taken from Indigenous tribes). Even in times of shortage, senior water rights holders — many of them farmers — get priority over latecomers, like those millions of Western urbanites.
That created repeated conflict — as the old Western saying goes, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” Over 150 years after the Gold Rush, fights over the prior appropriation doctrine are as fierce as ever, playing out in communities and between states, like Cochise County, Arizona, residents battling a water-guzzling mega-dairy, or the six Colorado River states that have agreed to slash their use to make up for the shortfall while California refuses to commit to necessary reductions. It’s now the Golden State versus everyone else.
California public officials, like many California farmers, argue that they don’t need to cut their water use so drastically because they hold senior rights. That’s now up in the air. Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior published a draft analysis detailing three options it can take if states fail to reach an agreement: do nothing, make cuts based on existing water rights, or cut water allotments evenly among California, Arizona, and Nevada.
“This is what we have inherited: a very rigid and complex system,” said Nick Hagerty, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, back in February.
Matthews was blunter: “It is a stupid system, but the problem is that people are really heavily invested in that system.”
However, it’s hard to get those who’ve benefited from the system for so long to change. California’s Imperial Valley, home to many alfalfa farms, gets about as much water from the Colorado River as the entire state of Arizona — and farmers in the Valley pay just $20 per acre foot (326,000 gallons). Meanwhile, farmers and residents in nearby San Diego County pay around $1,000 or more per acre-foot.
Many Imperial Valley farmers are reluctant to reduce their use, citing their senior water rights. One farmer who chairs an agricultural water committee for the valley’s water district told Cal Matters that unless the federal government adequately compensates farmers, mandated cuts could be akin to property theft, and blamed water shortages on urban growth and excessive use from junior water rights holders.
Sudden changes to the water supply can hit farmers hard, and assistance has taken various forms in recent years — and experts like Matthews want to see them get the help they need to adapt to a different, drier economy. As the US Bureau of Reclamation has reduced the water supply for several states and Mexico, a patchwork of federal and state initiatives have moved forward to compensate farmers to reduce water use.
Late last year, the Biden administration announced it will use some of the $4 billion in drought mitigation from the Inflation Reduction Act to pay farmers — as well as cities and Indigenous tribes — to cut their water use. Utah lawmakers recently proposed spending $200 million on grants for farmers to invest in promising but costly water-saving technologies, while farmers in Southern California have been paid to skip planting some of their fields.
But Hagerty says a lot more could be done: “I think it’s incredibly important there be more flexibility in the system.” He wants to see farmers have more leeway to transfer, sell, or lease their water rights to cities. In California, farmers don’t directly hold their water rights and instead are members of irrigation districts that collectively hold those rights. But California law often impedes the districts from leasing water, leading some farmers to use water even if it may not be critical to their operations because if they don’t use it, they lose it.
One solution he’s proposed is a reverse auction, in which water users make bids to the federal government on how much money they’d accept to forgo a particular amount of water use. But he says any reform will inevitably be incremental because there are so many competing interests at play.
“Policymakers have been hesitant to make any real major changes, and I think that’s partly because this stuff is very politically fraught,” Hagerty said. “There’s a whole lot of different stakeholders to keep happy.”
Adapting to climate change includes changing what we eat
A number of short-term solutions should be enough to help Colorado River states get through the next few years, but in the long term, policymakers and food producers — and us — around the world will need to rethink how we farm and eat in a changing climate. It won’t be enough to simply change farming practices in the Western US, as Ruddell, a co-author of the Nature Sustainability paper, noted to me.
That means altering the demand side of the water supply-demand equation and shifting diets globally to foods that use less H2O, which ultimately means less meat and dairy, as well as fewer water-intensive tree nuts like almonds, pistachios, and cashews (nut milks, however, require much less water to produce than cow’s milk).
Agriculture isn’t just the largest user of water in the Southwestern US, it’s the largest globally, consuming 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals. And what we need in the Southwest and beyond isn’t just climate adaptation, but dietary adaptation.
Just as policymakers made the Western US into the agricultural powerhouse it is today, despite its lack of something that is generally considered key to farming — water — they can also shape water policy and broader agricultural policy to ensure water security for the tens of millions of Americans west of the Mississippi River. But that will require policy changes that go beyond the dinner table.
The federal government, through deregulation, R&D investments, subsidies, and food purchasing (like for public schools and federal cafeterias), heavily favors animal agriculture. Given the meat and dairy lobby’s political influence and farm states’ overrepresentation in the Senate, drastic changes to our food supply in the near term, ones that would favor plant-based agriculture, are out of the realm of political possibility. But change is afoot: In March, the Biden administration announced goals to bolster R&D for plant-based meat and dairy and other animal-free food technologies. Down the road, climate change may force some state and federal government’s hands to turn those goals into comprehensive agriculture policy. Already, American policymakers are mulling and making hard choices about water use, pitting crops for cows against water for people.
There’s no disagreement that if the Colorado River can continue to supply Americans with running water, there will need to be cuts to agricultural use. We can learn from the mistakes made by Western planners in 1922 who overestimated how much water would flow from the Colorado River, and act now to shape food policy to adapt to a warming, drier climate.
Special thanks to Laura Bult and Joss Fong on the Vox video team, whose extensive research for a November 2022 video on this subject contributed to this story.