I-Team: Despite drought, water used to grow export crop - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Despite drought, water used to grow export crop

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Alfalfa field in Imperial Valley. Alfalfa field in Imperial Valley.
John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
Alfalfa bales in Imperial Valley. Alfalfa bales in Imperial Valley.

LAS VEGAS -- Southern Nevadans have made some inroads when it comes to coping with the extended drought. The amount of water consumed in Las Vegas has dropped in recent years, mostly due to homeowners and businesses removing their grass.

What if we told you that billions of gallons of water from the Colorado River are being used to grow grass somewhere else, grass that is then exported to China and other countries?

When you think about all of the acres of turf that have been removed, all those lawns replaced, and plants uprooted, and then realize it's a drop in the bucket -- literally and figuratively -- compared to what is done with a vastly greater supply of water that flows right past our back door.

As much water as is used in the desert on turf -- and it's a lot -- the total consumption pales with the oceans of grass being grown further down river. The grass is being exported as cattle feed.

The blowing dunes of the Imperial Valley are so bleak; it's tough for even tumbleweeds to grow. Lawrence of Arabia could ride up out of the desert and it wouldn't surprise. But drench the desert with enough water and poof, an agricultural paradise. Nevada water officials have to hide their lust.

“Nevada uses 1.8 percent of the water off the river,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

Its legal entitlement is about 1.3 million acre feet, approximately 10 times all of Nevada's entitlement. Entsminger has helped usher in massive cuts in per capita water use, mainly by coaxing locals into removing grass. So he's got to be at least a little bit envious of the billions of gallons of river water that rush into the Imperial Valley, which is criss-crossed by an amazing array of wide canals, concrete trenches and roadside aqueducts.

There is so much water that farmers irrigate their crops by flooding the fields, which is notoriously inefficient and wasteful. More wasteful, in the eyes of critics, is the choice of crops.

Historically, 80 percent of America's winter vegetables are grown in the Imperial Valley, but these days, the dominant crop is alfalfa. Every field, as far as the eye can see, is either growing alfalfa or has just had its alfalfa mowed down, ready for baling.

Gigantic storehouses of hay dominant the landscape. Everywhere, workers are either loading or unloading bales. The roadways rumble with the sound of hay trucks, and shipping containers packed with alfalfa are trucked toward the closest sea port.

“The Chinese market for alfalfa has absolutely exploded,” said Robert Glennon, a public policy professor Robert.

Glennon likely has his picture on dartboards all over Imperial Valley because he's pointed out the problems of growing a water intensive crop in one of the hottest, driest places in the country and then shipping the alfalfa overseas. It's the same as sending them our water, he says.

“They use 6.5 or 7 feet of water per acre per year. That's a lot of water and the worst part is, a lot of it is used in the summer, because it’s so hot and warm. Alfalfa grown under such tough conditions uses as much as four times more water than the rest of the year,” Glennon said. “It's north of 100 billion gallons of water in 2013 that went into producing alfalfa that was then exported to China.”

In most parts of California, farmers have been devastated by the drought and are barely hanging on, but in Imperial Valley, there is no drought. Farmers shifted from growing human foods to animal feed because of growing demand and higher prices overseas, where emerging economies have promoted meat and dairy consumption.

In just six years, hay exports to China went from 2,000 tons to 400,000 tons and it isn't just from California. In 2012, western states including drought-ravaged Nevada shipped 4 million metric tons of hay overseas which is 30 percent of all the hay produced in the United States.

California produces nearly 9 million metric tons per year. Nevada produced 1.2 million metric tons, and it was shipped it to China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other countries. United Arab Emirates and Korea got some of California's hay.

Officials in Las Vegas say they do not begrudge the legal use of all that water or that it is shipped abroad in the form of hay. They are careful to not even say they'd like to buy some of it.

“If you are talking about us buying California water rights and bringing them to Nevada? That would be politically problematic even if individual farmers wanted to sell, the state of California would be unlikely to allow that to happen,” Entsminger said.

Imperial Valley farmers were pretty ticked at Glennon when he first raised questions about alfalfa exports two years ago. Glennon says he supports farmers’ rights to grow products for which there is a viable market, but he'd like to see changes in water laws which encourage farmers to use every drop or risk having their allotment reduced the following year.

Glennon hopes deals can be cut in which cities like Las Vegas pay farmers to use water more efficiently, still grow their hay for export, but leave a little water for everyone else.

“Farmers use just over 80 percent of the water in the country. If you include livestock, it’s 85 percent. If that 85 percent were cut down to 78, say 7 percent, that would double the entire nation's consumption for domestic, commercial, and industrial,” Glennon said.

Even though Entsminger said it is a politically delicate matter for him to express any interest in California water, the Southern Nevada Water Authority entered a multi-state pact which will pay farmers to use water more efficiently.

Professor Glennon says that is step one toward interstate water exchanges which could one day allow Nevada to work around the so-called law of the river that seems to be carved into stone. He also wants to change the use-it-or-lose it rules which encourage water waste.

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