- An investigation from ProPublica and The Desert Sun focused on farmers’ water use in California.
- They found that 20 farming families used a majority share of one region’s water.
- Those families used the water mainly to grow hay to feed livestock, the investigation found.
The Southwest United States is slowly losing access to its foremost source of water — the Colorado River, which provides over 40 million people across seven states access to water for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, and more.
Warmer temperatures due to human-driven climate change reduced the river’s flow by more than 10% from 2000 to 2021, according to a study from the University of California.
Other estimates predict that if greenhouse gas emissions are not quickly curbed, there won’t be enough snow to melt and contribute to the river, which could lead to the flow dropping more than 20% by 2050.
As the Colorado River dries up, scrutiny about its use has increased. This has left governments, activists, and locals searching for ways to cut water use and save what’s left of this critical resource.
According to an investigation from ProPublica and The Desert Sun, one farming region in southern California, the Imperial Valley, uses more water than the rest of the entire state. Most of the water in the valley is used by just 20 farming families, the investigation found.
And most of those farms use that water to grow just one crop — hay.
A small group in Imperial Valley soaks up billions of gallons
Hay is an especially water-thirsty crop because of its deep roots, long growing season, and dense vegetation.
In Utah, its 9,300 hay operations devour most of the state’s water resources, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
For their investigation, reporters at ProPublica and The Desert Sun estimated the water consumption of farming families in the Imperial Valley by combining satellite data with records of who owned and farmed each field.
The reporters calculated that the family with the thirstiest farm used over 84 billion gallons in 2022, which is more than the city of Las Vegas, and about 3% of the Colorado River’s entire flow to this region.
Aside from using exorbitant amounts of water compared to the rest of California, the families export a significant portion of the hay outside the valley, according to the report. Critics told outlets that exporting that hay is basically the same as exporting billions of gallons of valuable water away from drought-ridden regions that need it most.
Where the hay goes
Hay is mainly used to feed livestock, which contributes between 11% to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to The Breakthrough Institute.
Yet, the incentive to keep growing water-thirsty hay to continue supporting greenhouse-gas-emitting livestock will likely continue if changes aren’t made to the cost of water.
The Imperial Valley district gets its water for free from the US Bureau of Reclamation, ProPublica reported. The bureau then sells that water to farmers for cheap.
“Cheap water helps make growing hay in the Imperial Valley profitable,” ProPublica and The Desert Sun wrote.
In an effort to reduce farms’ water use, the Biden administration earlier this year allocated $125 million to help pay Colorado River farmers to stop farming and let their crops go dry.
But farmers previously told Business Insider it wasn’t enough money to stop them from growing.
The federal government has created initiatives to assist farmers who are willing to curb their water use by using new irrigation techniques, like using sprinklers instead of flooding fields.
Other states have begun dealing with this reckoning too. Troy Waters, a fifth-generation Coloradan farmer, previously told BI that he’s doing his best to conserve water to save the river, but wished he saw similar efforts in California.
“Gosh damn, independent farmers now are having to start thinking politically,” he said.