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The Colorado River’s Alfalfa Problem

The meat and dairy industries are some of the biggest water users in the American West, thanks to one of cows’ favorite foods – alfalfa. As aridification continues across the American southwest, water is becoming far more scarce on the Colorado River. A critical source of water for roughly 40 million Americans, we look at why so much of the Colorado River’s freshwater goes toward growing water-intensive hay crops, and at what can be done to significantly scale back consumptive use in the future.

In this episode, we hear from people who’ve traveled from around the world to see the Hoover Dam. With white bathtub rings marking a long-past high water mark, Lake Mead is severely overdrawn. Together with Lake Powell, America’s two biggest man-made reservoirs are losing water faster than ever as cities, towns and farms withdraw their legal allocations.

To find out why farmers in this region keep growing such water-intensive crops, our producer Megan Myscofski meets up with alfalfa farmer Larry Cox. They tour his farmland near Brawley, in California’s Imperial Valley. With no potable water, Cox’s home, farm and livelihood depend entirely on his farmland’s senior water rights from the Colorado River. Leaving the fields fallow is not an option.

Jay then sits down with Dan Putnam, an expert on alfalfa and other forage crops at the University of California, Davis, and Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. They discuss why it’s so difficult legally and economically to uproot water-intensive crops such as alfalfa, and they bring up solutions to get ‘more crop out of each drop’. They also discuss what cities and urban areas will have to do, to ensure there’s enough water to support everyone in the lower Colorado River basin.

Guest Bios

Sarah PorterSarah Porter

Sarah Porter is Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Prior to the Kyl Center, Sarah was the Arizona state director of the National Audubon Society and led a multi-state initiative to protect and restore important river habitats.

Sarah serves on Governor Ducey’s Water Augmentation Council and University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center’s External Advisory Council. She chairs the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board, serves on Phoenix’s Environmental Quality Commission and several other non-profit boards.

A native of Phoenix, Sarah received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and her Juris doctorate from Arizona State University College of Law. Sarah brings to the project familiarity with the Arizona water management community and stakeholders and knowledge of western water law.

Dan PutnamDan Putnam

Dan Putnam is a professor of cooperative extension in the department of Plant Sciences at the University of California. After spending 30 years researching and developing alfalfa crops, he is a frequent invited speaker at scientific conferences, a sought-after collaborator in alfalfa-related research projects, and an influential scientist in forage crop production.

Dan was born in southern Ohio and raised in a small town there, surrounded by corn, soybean and hay fields. He studied agriculture at Wilmington College in the 1970s, In 1986, he received his PhD in Plant & Soil Science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During this time, he spent one year in India on a Fulbright Scholarship studying sorghum, peanuts and sunflower and working on corn and soybean research in his graduate work at Amherst. In 1993 he became the Alfalfa/Forage Specialist in Cooperative Extension at UC Davis, and he now mentors students and new farm advisors; he co-authored and produced the book Irrigated Alfalfa Management, and is working with the private sector to improve subsurface drip irrigation.

He chaired the California Alfalfa Workgroup, the California and Western Alfalfa Symposia, and was a founding member of the California Alfalfa & Forage Association. With numerous publications on alfalfa and forage crops, his research includes work on irrigation management, as well as alfalfa varieties, genetics, and forage quality. In 2021, he received the James H. Meyer Distinguished Service Award by the Academic Federation of the University of California.





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