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How One California Alfalfa Farmer Cut His Water Use In Half

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

Alfalfa is a thirsty plant that uses more water than any other crop in the state. One farmer in the Imperial Valley managed to cut his water use in half, but he says his water-saving methods won't work for everyone.

California's drought has been shining a light on alfalfa, a thirsty plant that uses more water than any other crop in the state. Alfalfa is the top crop in the Imperial Valley, where year-round heat and a steady supply of water allows farmers to grow it in every season.

One Imperial Valley alfalfa farmer has managed to cut his water use in half, but he says his water-saving methods won't work for everyone.

Jack Cato manages a 660-acre farm in the Imperial Valley called Lyons Road Ranch. He's driving through it one morning when he spots water pooling at the edge of a field. An underground hose has sprung a leak.

"Sometimes the trucks will run over the tapes and damage them," Cato said, flagging the leak so a repairman knows it needs fixing.

This leak is actually a sign of water efficiency, because it's a leak in a water-saving drip irrigation system. Subterranean hoses deliver water right to the roots of Cato's alfalfa. He says switching to drip brought his water use down — way down.

Compared to before, Cato said he's now at "almost half the water usage. Not quite, but almost."

Even when it leaks, this drip system still conserves much more water than the alternative, flood irrigation, which basically drenches the farm.

Canals border each field, and when farmers open their floodgates, water gushes out and saturates the soil. A lot of water can get lost below the roots and through run-off, but most alfalfa farmers in the Imperial Valley still rely on flood irrigation. And Cato understands why.

"When you've got a successful method of farming, and then you come along and you've got another method and it's not 100 percent proven, then why take the gamble?" Cato said.

Alfalfa is grown as a feed for animals, mainly dairy cows. When you eat a scoop of ice cream, in a way you're also eating the alfalfa a cow used to produce milk for that ice cream. No crop in the state uses more water than alfalfa, making it a regular target of criticism in drought-stricken California.

Khaled Bali is an irrigation advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Imperial County. He helps local farmers explore ways to become more water-wise. He said the drought has been forcing farmers to reexamine how they water their crops.

"I don't think we have the luxury we had before of unlimited water that can be used for agriculture," Bali said.

Bali is seeing a lot of new interest in drip, because it can both conserve water, and boost crop growth. Drip irrigation systems can have the same kind of appeal as hybrid cars, he said.

"Like with hybrid cars, you get more mileage from a gallon of fuel," Bali said. "With a drip irrigation system, it's the same thing. You're going to get more tonnage per unit of applied water."

Simply put, more crop per drop. But Bali says drip won't work for every alfalfa farmer in the Imperial Valley. A lot depends on the type of soil they're farming. Sandier soil — like the land Jack Cato farms — is ideal for drip. But farmers working with heavier soil might not stand to save that much water.

"Drip irrigation is not the answer for everything," Bali said. "I would not recommend switching every acre in the Imperial Valley to drip irrigation."

Cato says drip has brought him lots of water savings, but it's also brought him new headaches.

It was expensive to install. Even after six years, Cato said his drip system hasn't paid itself off yet.

And Cato said for him, the learning curve was steep. In early years using drip, he started seeing something no farmer wants to see: dead plants.

"Up to a year ago, when I saw the die-off in the fields, I didn't think it was something I wanted to continue with," Cato said.

Gophers are another problem for farmers who switch to drip. Flooding a field drowns any critters that might be living underground. In drip fields, gophers have plenty of room to dig tunnels and chew up expensive pipes.

Cato said he's been able to keep gophers from doing damage by laying out traps, but they're never far away.

"Let's see if we can find a tunnel," Cato said, digging a shovel into ground just beyond his fields. A few feet below the surface, he locates a gopher hole. "There's probably a gopher in there, taking a nap."

Cato said upfront costs, maintenance and gophers are just some of the many reasons alfalfa farmers might chose not to bother with drip.

"Whatever farmer starts doing this, he needs to take baby steps," said Cato. "It's not something you learn overnight, or in a book. You have to study your fields daily."

Cato still uses flood irrigation on some parts of the farm. Those fields soak up a lot more water, but he never has to check them for leaks.

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