How we export our water to Asia

A precious resource leaves the West in the form of alfalfa hay.

  • Alfalfa hay bales loaded in a container for shipping to China, home to an estimated 42 million head of cattle.


Severe drought plagues California, the Colorado River is perilously low, and yet billions of gallons of water are being "virtually exported" via one of the West's thirstiest crops: alfalfa.

Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It, estimates about 50 billion gallons of Western water – enough to supply 500,000 families annually – were sent to China via alfalfa in 2012. China isn't the world's biggest hay buyer – land-poor Japan leads, followed by the United Arab Emirates – but its hunger is rapidly growing.

Water also leaves in the form of food exports such as rice, wheat or almonds, but alfalfa stands out as a low-value forage crop, Glennon says. China's consumption of milk and meat is skyrocketing, and it can't feed 42 million cattle on its own.

Half of all Chinese shipping containers bringing goods into Western ports return empty, and it's cheaper for farmers (and more lucrative for shippers) to fill them with alfalfa for China than it is for Imperial Valley farmers to truck alfalfa around the West. But Glennon suggests a more direct transaction: Perhaps the farmers should abandon alfalfa and have the option to sell the water to Las Vegas, which is looking to spend billions to supplement its paltry Colorado River allocation.

"They would pay anything for that water," Glennon says.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 02:12 PM
I like this approach to evaluating exports - what is the West woefully short of? Water is our most precious commodity, and exporting it does not help us.
Andrew Taylor
Andrew Taylor
Apr 29, 2014 02:59 PM
Exporting the alfalfa also prices out local ranchers/farmers...
D H Shaver
D H Shaver Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 03:10 PM
We can argue about who "owns" the water yet ultimately the West has a long legal history and an exact answer -- we call them "Water Rights" for a reason. The owner of those rights -- that personal property -- should ultimately have the ability to sell the property to the highest bidder. Why is it wrong that the current, best use of the water is alfalfa production for China? (You must be careful here to define "best use" here as "most economically rewarding" for the owner of the personal property.) You or I might want the owner to use his/her property in a different manner yet we should not have the ability to force them to do so. How does the use change? Find a higher economic value "best use" for those alfalfa fields and the owners of the land, water rights, farm implements, and bank accounts that fund the worker's paychecks will shift production.
Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 04:27 PM
Perhaps growth in Las Vegas, Tuscon, Phoenix and other desert areas should be curtailed.
Frank Smith
Frank Smith
Apr 29, 2014 04:37 PM
I recall that high quality alfalfa was being exported to Japan longer than 30 years ago from the Indian Wells Valley in California. Post-Pleistocene glacier melt water was growing seven cuttings a year in the desert (much evaporating, of course), supporting a couple of dozen jobs and using an immense amount of water that was not being replenished. I expect it wasn't only that crop that was being shipped west. Almonds are as well, and turning the western Sierra slopes to almond production is causing the spread of bee diseases as it requires mixing almost all of the US transported bees in the brief weeks it takes to pollinate that crop in proximity to each other.

In the Midwest, alfalfa cuttings in "good" years might be four, per year. Now, two cuttings has become the norm, as we're returning to Dust Bowl days, thanks to Anthropogenic Global Warming superimposed on natural cycles.
Thomas Blaney
Thomas Blaney
Apr 29, 2014 04:50 PM
The Central Arizona Project canal and all federal water projects are still welfare programs.
Kristy & Corky Vyverberg
Kristy & Corky Vyverberg Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 06:36 PM
In California, water rights are maintained by filing an annual report of "beneficial use" of the water with the Regional Water Boards. "Beneficial" can be defined by local authorities; example: some communities do not allow residential landscape watering with riparian water. Would most voters consider California cotton, alfalfa or even beef exports "beneficial" given their extreme water consumption? Given that agriculture consumes over 80% of our water, perhaps now is the time to review both subsidized rates and "beneficial use" allowances as part of an overdue water policy debate.
James Roberts
James Roberts
Apr 29, 2014 07:10 PM
Another reason the world needs to back or eliminate meat consumption. It is totally unsustainable. If you eat meat (especially corporate meat)and call yourself environmentalist you're talking out of both sides of your mouth.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 07:33 PM
Tip of the ice-berg, not only water, but how many more or other resources ? It's globalization. There is no conservation, only use everything as fast as you can to make the highest profit. When we start running out, and we will, prices have already gone up for us, because commodities are sold and exported, this leads to living temporarily beyond are means, whether water, oil, crops, enviromental destruction to satisfy the never ending demand. When will we finally say no to exporting our and are futures resources now for a quick buck, when we will need them tomorrow ?
David R. Smith DVM
David R. Smith DVM Subscriber
May 06, 2014 05:18 PM
If you haven't bought a ton of alfalfa lately you don't understand that it is not low value. Maybe if you just count ounces of protein it is cheap but if you are feeding livestock it is far from cheap. But if you figure amount of gain per dollar spent it is still cheaper than other types of roughage for livestock. And of course the same goes even for maintenance of a horse or cow.
Terry Watt
Terry Watt
May 06, 2014 10:06 PM
In 2003 the USDA started a program in China to show them how their dairy cows will produce much more milk when fed US alfalfa. It worked, China expanded their dairies and US alfalfa shipments to China expanded along with them, and then so did the price tag on alfalfa for US consumers. Do a search for this article "Cheaper to ship alfalfa to China than to California dairies" (in empty shipping containers) Traditionally a bale of hay cost $8 - 8.50 in the winter and $4.50 - 5.00 in the summer (it grows faster in the summer). Since our USDA did such a fine job of promoting US alfalfa in China, the price of a bale of hay jumped up to $20 and more here. It still lingers around $17. This hurt everyone in the US who feeds alfalfa, from dairies to horse owners. And of course this all happened when people were losing their jobs (outsourcing) and their homes were being foreclosed on (shifty mortgages), and suddenly they could no longer afford to feed their horse or horses or dairy cattle or whatever. Horse rescues filled up - it has not been pretty at all. Don't even mention bringing horse slaughter back to the US, that is not the answer, it is not the horse's fault, it's man's - as usual. Besides the fact that over 100,000 US horses are being shipped to Mexico and Canada each year for slaughter, so don't say the rescues are full because there's no slaughter in the US. They're full trying to SAVE them from slaughter. I no longer have horses, the price of hay is ridiculous and the price of gas to go get the hay is ridiculous. It is not costing the local hay farmers (lower Colorado River) who sell to local hay buyers any more to grow that hay than it did before 2008, and they do the happy dance to the bank each week at the expense of their regular decades long customers.