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The American southwest is facing an acute water crisis but there is more to the story

The Colorado river is drying up. While the droughts have wreaked havoc in the region, the virtual export of this water through one single crop, Alfalfa, is at the center of the crisis.

Lake Mead, situated along the Hoover Dam on Colorado River has reached a record low water levels

The southwestern United States is facing a peculiar water shortage. The principal reason for this shortage however, has not had enough mainstream media coverage. The crisis related to the main source for water for the southwestern states, the Colorado River. This river is responsible for providing livelihood along seven major states - Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The Colorado River is considered to be the lifeblood of the American southwest. The reason is that the river has an annual economic value of about $1.4 trillion and irrigates the land spanning 5.5 million acres through its waters.

This paints a clear picture of why the shortage of water from the Colorado River is such an alarming problem for the southwestern states. However, the impact of this shortage would not just be limited to these states. It is first important to consider the geography of the river and the diversion of water across different states.

These seven states are irrigated by the Colorado River.

The image above clearly indicates that Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado are upper basin states that get most of their water primarily from the Colorado River. The other four, California, Arizona and Nevada are the lower basin states that obtain their water from the river by storing in reservoirs. An international water sharing treaty was also signed to divert a minute portion of the Colorado River water across the border to Mexico. Mexico received about 1.5 million acre-foot (maf) of this water as a part of this treaty.

Running through the deserts of the Southwest, the Colorado river has become an important source of water for not just household purposes, but also for agriculture and hydropower projects. Over the last few years however, the region has faced a high rate of drought cases leading to a protracted shortage of water available for production and household usage. While one could find countless reports covering the severity of the drought and the resulting drought contingency plan, not much has been said about the other, perhaps the more significant reason for this decay.

The Colorado river provides water to about 40 million people across these seven states and two countries. The river, for all the importance that it holds, has not just been used for household purposes. In fact, the majority of the river water share goes into irrigation for agricultural purposes.

Why is this a problem? In an already arid region, more than 50 per cent of the river water gets diverted to the production of only one crop- Alfalfa. The share of the household usage of the river water is hence less than half. This is concerning because the crop yielded through the majority of this crop is not even consumed by humans but can only be used as cattle fodder. Alfalfa is a very high water consuming crop, categorised a a type of hay and it is grown at the majority of the croplands across the American southwest.

The river water consumption against the water usage

This pattern of the river water usage has led to a stark disparity between the water consumption and availability in the Colorado river over the last few years. As of 2020, the water consumption statistics of the Colorado river were way above the water availability.

How did this situation come about?

While it is true that a major share of the crops grown in the southwestern states belongs to Alfalfa, the consumption of this cattle fodder however is not just limited to these specific states or to the United States for that matter. What has added to the massive production and the consequent usage of water for irrigation of these crops is the fact that a large portion of this water heavy crop is exported around the world, majorly to Asia.

Around 68 per cent of the Colorado river water diverted to Utah alone accounts for the production of Alfalfa and other Hay crops. Out of this, 29 per cent is exported out of the country. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China have accounted for the major imports of Alfalfa for their own cattles.

This has become a strong multi-million business franchise that has contributed to an unprecedented level of water consumption from the Colorado river.

The Saudis and the Emiratis

Not just for exports through American companies, the companies from Saudi Arabia and the UAE have even set up bases along the different regions of these states.

Fondomonte, a Saudi commercial farming venture is the owner of 10,000 acres of farmland in Arizona for just $47 million and has the permit to extract as much water for the production of Alfalfa as it needs. The company is reported to be using almost 18,000 acre-feet of water every year which is enough water to supply to thousands of families for household usage. All of this crop goes back to benefit the cattle in Saudi Arabia and contributes extensively in their agricultural and dairy industry development. Saudi Arabia had continued to purchase lands along the Colorado river region and it was by 2020 that the total land owned by the country amounted to about 18, 586 acres.

Al Dahra, the company from the UAE that has strongholds on the production of Alfalfa in the region. The UAE owns even more land than the Saudis, amounting to about 46,496 acres. This has also contributed to the agriculture and dairy industry of the Emirates at the expense of the small households living across the region.

Most of the agriculturally prominent states across Asia, particularly Saudi Arabia, Japan or China are choosing not to use their own water resources or the production of this hay crop. However, the truth remains that this hay crop is also very significant to their dairy industry because Alfalfa forms a very high quality fodder for cattle. The resulting arrangement was that the production of this crop would be outsourced to the United States and the benefits would be reaped by these countries.

Since countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have immense amounts of wealth to buy large quantities of lands and also engage in production activities in these regions, not much has been done about regulating their functions in the region. It is also very concerning that despite a large share of water consumption going for agricultural produce, the federal authorities have asked for a reduction in the household water consumption so as to conserve the river water.

The commercialisation of this hay crop may have long standing benefits for the agricultural industry but one cannot ignore the fact that it is draining up a river that accounts for the livelihood of about 40 million people across this region. The already drought prone region of the American southwest makes it all the more crucial for the Colorado river to be sustainable and just curbing the household consumption would not do the trick.

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