Sunday, January 26, 2014

Exporting Water From the Desert Southwest

National Geographic (via Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily):
In July in Yuma County, Arizona, Dave Sharp's alfalfa crops, like every other living thing in the 105°F (40°C), dry desert heat, get thirsty.
All that keeps them alive, and indeed keeps these fields and the hundreds of thousands of acres surrounding them in Yuma County from going fallow, is the Colorado River, diverted one last time through the Yuma Project before flowing across the border into Mexico.
The same can be said of California's Imperial Valley, across the river and about 60 miles (97 kilometers) to the west, which was essentially uninhabitable before the Imperial Canal first drew Colorado River water there in 1901, and then the All-American Canal brought more in 1940.....
Alfalfa grows fast, so every month or so, a harvester will cut the crop, which will then be packed into tight bales; trucked to Long Beach, California; and loaded on a tanker bound for China or Japan or the United Arab Emirates.
All across the lower Colorado River Basin—and especially in Yuma County, the Imperial Valley, and the Green River area in Utah—scenes like this are playing out with increasing regularity. What was once a reliable and local, if relatively low-value, crop has become a global commodity. But the fact that the Colorado River is fueling the export boom has some western water advocates worried......
On top of the demand spike, a staggering trade imbalance between China and the U.S. creates an incredible advantage for any American producer to ship anything at all to China, even bulky, heavy bales of hay. For every two container ships that bring those iPods and T-shirts to California ports from China, one goes back empty.
As a result, "it costs less today to ship a ton of alfalfa from Long Beach to Beijing than it does to ship it from the Imperial Valley in California to the Central Valley," explains Glennon.
All of this leads to alfalfa and hay exports that have more than doubled since 1999 and increased by 60 percent since 2007, with the biggest increases by far being in shipments to China and the United Arab Emirates. For instance, in 2007, China imported just 2,400 metric tons of hay. By 2012, that had increased over 200 times to more than 485,000 metric tons. And in a paper Putnam presented earlier this month, he predicts another 50 percent growth over the previous year's volume in 2013.
The situation is complicated by the fact that farmers get the water for massively under-market value prices, so the hay exports are massively subsidized by other water users.  What gets me about western alfalfa production is that they get up to 8 cuttings a year.  

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