Alfalfa loves the Southwest. In the heat, under the sun, it grows so quickly that it can be harvested up to eight times a year. But alfalfa is thirsty, guzzling trillions of gallons of water per year. In the deserts of Arizona and California, a significant amount of that water comes from the Colorado River, and the river is running dry.
The Southwest is suffering not just from a twenty-year mega-drought, but also from aridification. The river will never rise to its former levels, and the current distribution of its water will become more and more unsustainable as climate change reduces rainfall and raises temperatures, increasing evaporation. The original provision of water distribution, based on the century-old Colorado River Compact, divides water between Upper and Lower Basin states, Indigenous tribes, and Mexico, but many of the farms in the Southwest stake their claims based on even older agreements: places like Blythe, California, have prior water rights dating back to the 1870s. This grants farmers in Blythe unlimited access to extraordinarily cheap water (as long as it’s used for “beneficial” purposes like farming, the farmers pay only the water district’s overhead), while growing cities pay substantially more and Mexicans at the southern tip of the river are left with almost no water.