California alfalfa growers are considering the unthinkable — in drought years, voluntarily cutting off irrigations in midsummer, and selling their water to urban consumers.

Speakers at the California Alfalfa and Forage Symposium, held last month in Monterey, proposed methods for deficit irrigation of alfalfa that would be voluntary and temporary. They would involve selling only the water, not the water rights. But the fact that they were even talking about water transfers shows how conditions have changed in just a few years.

Growers are being squeezed from one end of the Golden State to the other. To the north, Klamath Basin growers were left high and dry in 2001 when water officials cut off the water supply to protect endangered species. In the south, Imperial Valley growers are being enticed by ever-more lucrative offers — and demands — from the massive water districts that serve Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

And it's not just California. Water availability as a critical issue throughout the West. That's why it's important to at least look at ways to help meet urban and environmental water demands while ensuring alfalfa's long-term viability, said Dan Putnam, California forage crops specialist.

Deficit irrigation is one approach. Watering might end in midsummer, then the crop would be rewatered in fall, either by rain or irrigation. Hopefully, it would produce normally the following season.

Alfalfa yield losses from deficit irrigation can cost up to several hundred dollars an acre. But that approach still might be a paying proposition for growers. Some water districts are willing to pay that much per acre-foot of water transferred.

Another approach is not planting a crop — fallowing the ground and selling all of a season's water to urban users. However, that lets weeds take over, leaves soil susceptible to erosion and might destroy a perennial crop like alfalfa. Plus, it hurts neighborhoods that rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

But deficit irrigation allows transfer of water without completely destroying crop production. It's a “middle road” approach to water transfers that has several advantages, said Siskiyou County farm advisor Steve Orloff.

Growers would still get at least one cutting — and possibly two or three — before irrigation would stop. Those early cuttings are usually the highest-yielding and the highest-quality of the year.

Also, applying at least some water to the crop would keep weeds from taking over, reduce wind erosion and keep the crop and the local economy alive.

The idea isn't without risk, said Orloff and Putnam.

In 2003 trials on four northern California farms, yields were reduced by 0.6, 0.71, 1.34, and 2.75 tons per acre. The actual losses might be even higher, as many growers wouldn't cut in July and August if yields were less than half a ton per acre. Payments from water districts would have to cover yield losses as well as any subsequent problems with weeds or insects.

Also, growers would risk losing their stands. The effect on stands in the four trials can't be assessed until this year, but the fields looked okay in August, said Orloff. Alfalfa, he noted, should be able to withstand a loss of water better than other crops due to its deep roots.

“I suppose it's feasible,” conceded Duane Chamberlain, a grower in the Sacramento Valley, where one of the four trials was conducted. “I don't believe we hurt our stands, but our production dropped 80-90% as soon as we cut off the water. We dropped to a quarter-ton an acre; it wouldn't even be worth harvesting.”

Chamberlain's fields received an inch of rain in late August, which is almost unheard of. “I don't know what those fields would have looked like without that rain.”

His conclusion? “I think it's feasible, but I think it's a shame that we would have to do it.”

Instead, he favors what anyone outside of California would call “dams.” But that has become a dirty word in the Golden State.

“It's ridiculous, because we have all of this mountain water coming down in the spring,” Chamberlain said. “We could build small holding facilities in the foothills and let gravity work for us.

“I can't even get the environmentalists to talk to me if I use the word ‘dam.’ So in my campaign literature — I'm running for county board of supervisors — I say, ‘environmentally sound on-stream and off-stream storage facilities.’ At least they'll talk to me then.”

Chamberlain's thinking is shared by just about everyone in California agriculture. But it's largely a pipe dream. Lloyd Fryer of the Kern County Water District told growers: “The environmentalists are adamant that no new dams will be built.” And after years of fighting environmentalists on even small storage facilities, most people in California agriculture would agree with him.

Fryer said a 2001 deal between the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) serves as a model for growers.

Those growers have historic water rights to Colorado River water. In 2001, they agreed to a system that would idle 7-29% of a grower's land in exchange for a one-time payment of $3,170 per acre and annual payments of $550 per acre-foot of water. The deal was agreed to on a trial basis, but was scuttled — at least temporarily — after just one year.

Even so, Fryer said growers could use it as a model for future deals.

“I call it a model, because it was voluntary. That's important. There's a market there — a demand for your water — and rather than giving it away or seeing it taken from you, it's good to see urban consumers feel the pain, too.”