The Colorado River, recently named America’s most endangered river, supports millions of people in the American Southwest and northwest Mexico and helps irrigate millions of acres of land. Yet demands on the river already exceed the river’s average supply, a situation that is projected to get worse in coming years as climate change reduces runoff at the same time that fast-growing southwest cities demand more water. Irrigated agriculture currently consumes more than 70% of the water supply within the Colorado River basin, making it critical for more efficient water use.
For the first time, new research from the Pacific Institute describes the extent of irrigated agriculture throughout the seven Colorado River basin states and two additional states in Mexico, the types of crops grown, and the amount of water used to grow these crops. In addition, the new report – Water to Supply the Land: Irrigated Agriculture in the Colorado River Basin – compares several agricultural management scenarios and the potential water savings and costs associated with each. Importantly, none of the scenarios remove agricultural land from production.
More than 90% of pasture and cropland in the 256,000-square-mile Colorado River Basin requires irrigation, with about 60% of the irrigated acreage devoted to pasture, alfalfa, and other forage crops used to feed cattle and horses. These forage crops consume about 5 million acre-feet per year, equivalent to a third of the river’s annual flow. Employing innovative irrigation techniques more strategically and in more places – techniques that many farmers are already using – can help ensure agriculture in the basin states continues in the face of rising demand and climate change’s projected impact on supply.
Modeling a series of agricultural water management conservation strategies – including regulated deficit irrigation, crop shifting, and advanced irrigation technologies – the Pacific Institute compared potential water savings and costs associated with individual scenarios. The analysis shows considerable water savings are possible. For example, almost a million acre-feet of water may be generated by irrigating alfalfa less often (a practice known as “regulated deficit irrigation”) throughout the basin in the U.S., at an estimated base cost of approximately $81 per acre-foot.
Other scenarios, such as shifting to less water-intensive crops, also yield impressive water savings with relatively low costs and without reducing the total amount of irrigated acreage in the basin. For example, replacing about 10% of the basin’s irrigated alfalfa acreage with cotton and wheat could save about 250,000 acre-feet of consumptive water use each year, with estimated base costs of less than $40 per acre-foot. Total reductions in water withdrawals and applied water would be even greater.