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Climate Change Could Put an End to Arizona’s Alfalfa Heyday

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As the West Faces a Drought Emergency, Some Ranchers are Restoring Grasslands to Build Water Reserves

It’s always alfalfa season in Arizona. In most other parts of the country, the perennial crop grows tall enough to harvest just a few times a year. But in the sun-drenched Southwest, the irrigated fields allow the crop to grow year-round, to the tune of 8.5 tons harvested for every acre and $397 million a year. All farmers need to do is add water.

At least that’s been the case for the many decades that alfalfa has boomed and bloomed in the Arizona desert, providing feed to the region’s megalithic dairy industry . Now, accelerating climate change and depleting water availability could change this.

As the Colorado River has reached historically low levels this summer, the future of Arizona’s water-thirsty alfalfa and irrigated agriculture has been called in to question. In August, federal officials declared the first-ever water shortage in Lake Mead, one of the two giant reservoirs fed by the river. This triggered mandatory water cuts outlined in a 2019 plan to prevent further, more dangerous drops in water. Arizona faces the sharpest cut: 18 percent of the state’s share of the water will […]

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