California Alfalfa & Forage Association

The well-publicized Klamath Basin water crisis that threatens to put farmers out of business also raises a troubling paradox, not to mention farmers becoming an endangered species. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is at the center of a suit by eight plaintiffs, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Association being the lead plaintiff.

A federal court has ruled that the bureau violated the Endangered Species Act last year by operating its irrigation project without calculating the impact on coho salmon and by not consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Association. Growers in the area counter by pointing out that irrigation tailwater provides an important refuge for waterfowl.

Alfalfa, of course, is an important crop in the Klamath Basin and a strong case can be made that its existence is critical for supporting a diverse wildlife population, including several endangered species. The subject was revisited earlier in the year. A CAFA member in the Mojave Desert who's in an adjudicated basin asked for information for an upcoming court hearing. The information CAFA supplied focused on alfalfa's high water use efficiency, but also pointed out that it's an important habitat for hundreds of wildlife species.

For example, surveys in the Sacramento Valley and later analysis by wildlife biologists show that alfalfa is host to 643 regularly occurring resident and migratory wildlife, including birds, mammals and reptiles. Approximately 25 percent of the 643 species are regular users of alfalfa and 10 percent use alfalfa extensively for breeding and reproduction.

Three years ago UC Extension Agronomist, Dan Putnam addressed the National Alfalfa Symposium on the topic of alfalfa's contributions to the wildlife and the environment. At the time, he pointed out that six species that use alfalfa were on the federal endangered or threatened species lists. In addition, the Swainson's hawk was on the California threatened species list and the northern harrier and white-faced ibis were state-listed species of “special concern.” Another point that was made is that irrigated alfalfa, which stretches from California through Washington is a significant Pacific flyway for waterfowl and raptors.

So, while coho salmon and two endangered species of suckerfish threaten to shut down farming in the Klamath Basin, a much wider number of wildlife species could be at risk if growers don't succeed in getting their fair share of water.

Fortunately, in the Mojave Desert case growers did prevail and successfully fought off a water-grab by non-agricultural users. A declaration by a University of California economist in the case of the City of Barstow vs. the City of Adelanto made several key points that give alfalfa growers high marks for efficient water management. The final summary in the economist's declaration points out that “many growers have made substantial improvements in their irrigation systems while maintaining alfalfa production and reduced water production to the range of 30 percent to 5 percent of their Base Annual Production.”

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