Today the national environmental organization Food & Water Watch released a new report revealing the dangerous abuse of precious water resources in the Colorado River Basin by specific industrial agriculture sectors, and prolonged governmental refusal to rein in the most egregious offenders that are putting the water stability of nearly 40 million Americans at risk. The report, “Big Ag is Draining the Colorado River Dry,” details the water mismanagement crisis playing out in the seven states making up the river basin, and advocates for specific state and federal policies to mitigate the crisis.
The report demonstrates how alfalfa farms and the aggressive proliferation of mega-dairies are sucking the Colorado River Basin states dry. It details a relentless feedback loop where water-intensive crops are grown in ever-greater volumes to feed animals on more and more factory farms, leaving less and less water for communities. The report comes in advance of an Aug. 15 public comment deadline on the Biden administration’s plan to manage water resources in the basin for years to come.
“Without drastic changes, the Colorado River basin will become increasingly unlivable for tens of millions of people across seven states,” said Food & Water Watch Research Director Amanda Starbuck. “We must de-prioritize wasteful industries like large-scale alfalfa and mega-dairies that are helping to drive worsening long-term drought. State and federal leaders must halt new and expanding factory farms and help transition small growers to more resilient crops. Ultimately, water is a public resource, not a commodity, and should be treated as such.”
The report found that alfalfa consumed 2.2 trillion gallons of water across the seven basin states in 2022 alone. This is enough water to meet the indoor household needs of all the nearly 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River system for water for three-and-a-half years. Livestock feed crops remain the largest consumers of water in the Colorado River Basin, accounting for 55 percent of all water used. Alfalfa alone covers 2.7 million acres across the basin states.
Meanwhile, foreign corporations are capitalizing on the deeply flawed system. The Almarai Company, a Saudi multinational, owns 10,000 acres of Arizona farmland, cultivating alfalfa to support dairies in Saudi Arabia; the country banned alfalfa cultivation in 2018 in order to conserve water.
The report offers a series of policy recommendations for leaders at state and federal levels, including: a moratorium on new and expanded factory farms; export restrictions on alfalfa; and an overhaul of state and regional water management practices.