| Much of what you can see in this photo is Hualapai land but the tribe cannot use any of the water Taken along the west rim of the Grand Canyon you can see the shrinking Colorado River in the canyon CC BY SA © Donald Hall Flickrcom | MR Online Much of what you can see in this photo is Hualapai land but the tribe cannot use any of the water. Taken along the west rim of the Grand Canyon, you can see the shrinking Colorado River in the canyon. CC-BY-SA © Donald Hall / Flickr.com

Big Ag is draining the Colorado River dry

Originally published: Food & Water Watch on August 2023 by Food & Water Watch (more by Food & Water Watch)  | (Posted Oct 24, 2023)

What You’ll Learn From This Report

The dangerous Big Ag feedback loop

The Colorado River is under threat and drying up

Big Ag guzzles water supplies at the expense of water security

Mega-dairies and alfalfa growth are deeply interconnected

Tribal water supplies continue to be threatened by Big Ag’s water abuses

Energy, crop systems, and ecosystems suffer under dwindling river supplies

We cannot save the Colorado River without combating corporate power

Part 1 Key Findings

The dangerous Big Ag feedback loop

| Arial view of a farmer harvesting alfalfa | MR Online

Arial view of a farmer harvesting alfalfa.

The American West is facing a water crisis, compounded by climate change, a history of bad policy, and government refusal to address Big Ag head-on. Huge agribusinesses remain unfazed by this crisis, continuing to abuse water supplies to feed animals on factory farms that, in turn, worsen the climate crisis and associated drought. Despite a short-term respite in late 2022 and early 2023 from a wet winter, a long-term megadrought persists across the region, as groundwater storage is being depleted after decades of over-withdrawals. The Colorado River Basin is ground zero for Big Ag’s assault on our water and climate future, and states must begin standing up to these perpetrators to ensure a safe and livable future


Alfalfa farming is a major culprit

  • In 2022, alfalfa covered 2.7 million acres across the Colorado River Basin states, consuming more than 2 trillion gallons of irrigation water.
  • Large-scale alfalfa farms (with 1,000 or more acres) make up less than 2 percent of all alfalfa farms in the Basin states. Around 94 percent used irrigation in 2017, together guzzling one-third of all irrigation water applied to alfalfa across the Basin states.

Mega-dairies are hugely culpable

  • The Basin states are also home to 2.5 million cows living on mega-dairies, requiring an estimated 218 million gallons every day just to wash and hydrate them.

The Big Ag feedback loop

  • Together, the Basin states exceed the national average for irrigation water applied per irrigated acre of farmland by more than 70 percent, with Arizona using over three times the national average.
  • Colorado River Basin states are hijacked by Big Ag in a relentless feedback loop, requiring more and more water as climate change intensifies, thereby decreasing the amount of water available for all uses.

See how Big Ag is draining the surrounding states dry.

Part 2 Crisis on the Colorado River

| Dead Pool The point at which the water level is so low that water can no longer flow downstream Minimum Power Pool The lowest level at which water continues to power the dams hydropower Source US Bureau of Reclamation 2023 | MR Online

Dead Pool: The point at which the water level is so low that water can no longer flow downstream.
Minimum Power Pool: The lowest level at which water continues to power the dam’s hydropower.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2023

The Colorado River is under threat and drying up

The Colorado River is one of the most regulated rivers in the world, due largely to its famous interstate water agreement, the Colorado River Compact. Established in 1922, the Compact theoretically distributes 16 million acre-feet of water annually to seven states and Mexico. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming are obligated to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, and the Upper Basin can only take its share from what remains.

This agreement has important ramifications across the West, with roughly one in ten Americans relying on the Colorado River Basin for their household water supply. Around 16 percent of the Basin’s area is on tribal land, with the river supplying water to dozens of American Indian tribes. By 2060, the Colorado Basin is projected to supply water to as many as 77 million people within the U.S., nearly double current figures.

The Colorado River also supplies the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, created by the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively. Lake Mead was originally designed to hold water for the Lower Basin states, while Lake Powell was created later to store water in case the Upper Basin could not deliver its promised amount. These reservoirs also generate significant amounts of electricity–nearly 10 billion kilowatt hours per year combined.

The Colorado River is the U.S.’s most endangered river. Since the early 2000s, average annual water demand has exceeded supply, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects that annual demand will reach as high as 6.7 trillion gallons by 2050. As demand increases, flows are trending in the opposite direction, with the annual flow down 20 percent since 2000. Climate change is only worsening this trend–for every 1 degree Celsius of warming, the river’s flow declines by 9 percent.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are in similarly dire situations. Lake Powell currently holds a quarter of its capacity, with water levels at 3,561 feet as of May 2023. It is only able to generate power above 3,490 feet, and dead pool–where water goes stagnant and cannot flow through the dam–is fewer than 200 feet away (see Fig. 1). This situation could be reached as soon as 2025. Record rainfall in early 2023 buoyed the lake’s levels, but this temporary reprieve provides only a year’s worth of breathing room.

Bad policy leads to insufficient negotiations

The Colorado River Compact formed in 1922 during a period of abnormally wet rainfall, resulting in an agreement that allocated 15 million acre-feet annually among the states. Yet in recent decades, only 12 to 13 million acre-feet has flowed through the river each year. The Compact relies on fixed numbers, leaving little room for declining supplies and potentially leaving Upper Basin states unable to fulfill their obligations to the Lower Basin. This dire scenario has not yet been reached, but the writing is on the dam walls. When Lake Mead and Lake Powell reached record lows in 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation issued a shortage declaration and began temporarily curbing water supplies to Upper Basin states. It cut Arizona and Nevada’s supplies by 18 and 7 percent, respectively.  Due to Western water law principles of seniority, California was spared.

In June 2022, the federal government stepped in with an ultimatum for Compact states: create a plan to cut water over the next year, or the government will do it by force. The three Lower Basin states came to a proposed deal in May 2023, promising voluntary cuts of 3 million acre-feet by 2026. This amounts to 13 percent of the Colorado River water used each year in the Lower Colorado Basin, among the largest cuts ever taken. Reductions come with a call for the federal government to pay out $1.2 billion to the irrigation districts, cities, and American Indian tribes for their temporary water reduction.

Even so, this proposed agreement only lasts until the end of 2026. Farmers may be incentivized to temporarily leave their land fallow, but this is not a permanent solution. The proposal also does

| Source See Methodology | MR Online

Source: See Methodology

not cut nearly enough water to restore the Colorado River–states need to cut four times as much annually for the reservoirs to recover.

Part 3 Alfalfa and Mega-Dairies Monopolize the Colorado River

Big Ag guzzles water supplies at the expense of water security

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