DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Who knew a solution to America's trade imbalance with China could be found by mixing desert soil with water? What you get is alfalfa. It used to be alfalfa hay stayed local. Dairy cows ate it that produced milk for Americans. But recently, alfalfa has been satisfying a demand for dairy products in China's growing middle class. Ted Robbins has the story.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The sun is coming up on the Wellton-Mohawk Valley near Yuma, Arizona. When the cut alfalfa smells like a freshly mowed lawn. Farmer Dave Sharp is waiting for the right time to bail it.
DAVE SHARP: If you'll feel this hay right here, you can feel the moisture in it. You can feel the toughness in it. See, it won't break when I - when I work it. That is too tough - too tough - got too much moisture in it.
ROBBINS: When it's a little dryer, Dave Sharp's high protein hay will be a dairy cow's dream.
SHARP: Little bit of time. We'll give it a little bit of time, and then we'll be ready to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
ROBBINS: A few hours in the desert heat, and the alfalfa is ready. Balers move up and down the field, raking the hay and compressing it into big blocks - eight feet long, 1,400 pounds each. Then it's double compressed.
SHARP: It gets pushed into our hay compression machine, which compresses the hay to a smaller density.
ROBBINS: Jim Ohland is general manager of Kuhn Hay in El Centro, California. He supervises the process which made it feasible to send what used to be a local crop around the world. It's even shrink-wrapped.
JIM OHLAND: Exact same thing that a Pepsi-Cola or Budweiser or anybody uses to palletize a product. Only thing we don't do is put it on pallets.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
ROBBINS: That alfalfa makes its way on trucks to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Here, the containers which bring furniture, auto parts and electronics to this country are loaded with hay for the return trip to China. Because those containers would otherwise go back empty, it's actually cheaper to transport alfalfa from here to Beijing than it is to drive it north to California's Central Valley.
This is where our story about trade becomes a story about water. Farmers in much of the drought-stricken southwest are having trouble getting enough water to grow crops. But there's one place water is still plentiful - the region growing alfalfa near Yuma, Arizona, and just west in California's Imperial Valley.
That's because water here comes from the Colorado River, from high in the Rockies, 1,000 miles away, downhill through one of the largest water storage projects in world history to farms like Ronnie Leimgruber's.
Leimgruber sticks a shovel in the handle of a steel irrigation gate about the size of a large dog door. He yanks it up. When he opens a gate, water floods one of his alfalfa fields. He jogs down the side of the irrigation ditch, opening one gate after another.
This water turned a place which gets just three inches of rain a year into one of the most productive farming regions in the country. But that water supply is threatened by climate change and long-term drought. Lake Mead is hovering at half its capacity.
Robert Glennon is a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of "Unquenchable - America's Water Crisis And What To Do About It." Those containers filled with alfalfa headed for China - he says, they might as well be filled with massive amounts of fresh water.
ROBERT GLENNON: In 2013, that was in excess of 100 billion gallons of water. And most of that is from California, and California is suffering through the worst drought in memory.
ROBBINS: Glennon says, exporting more and more alfalfa is unsustainable - a classic example of an economic dilemma known as the tragedy of the commons. Centuries ago, farmers in Europe grazed their cows on common ground. Each farmer acted rationally in their own self-interest, but together they depleted the common resource -grass. In this case, self-interest is a record high price for alfalfa. The common resource is water.
GLENNON: We've allowed limitless access to a finite supply.
ROBBINS: Agriculture uses 80 percent of Colorado River water. Cities want more of it. But there's no incentive for farmers to conserve water. Under the Byzantine law of the river, farmers like Dave Sharp don't even have the option to use less water. If he doesn't use his allotment, he loses it.
SHARP: I can market it. I can't move it. I have an entitlement to use the water that the irrigation district has - the rights. But I don't have ownership of that that I can sell it, lease it, move it - whatever I want.
ROBBINS: People like Robert Glennon say, it's time to relax the rules - help farmers conserve water. One option...
GLENNON: Temporary suspension of summertime irrigation.
ROBBINS: Stop growing alfalfa during the heat, when it uses much more water than in cooler months. If Colorado River basin farmers can reduce their overall use by just six percent, Robert Glennon says, cities would gain a startling amount of water.
GLENNON: That would double municipal supply in the entire basin - six percent. I don't think anyone thinks we can't conserve six percent of ag. water with really intelligent but very costly improvements in infrastructure.
ROBBINS: For instance, it costs a million dollars to convert a 500-acre farm from flood to drip irrigation. That's a lot for a farmer. But industries could compensate farmers to protect the water supply for their products.
GLENNON: For high-value stuff, like Intel for its chips or Google for its server farms - how do we do that? And I think the way we do that is by insisting that these other user groups pay to modernize farm infrastructure.
ROBBINS: Farmers like Ronnie Leimgruber are wary. Even if cities and businesses pay for ag. improvements, he's convinced they won't use the water wisely once they get it.
RONNIE LEIMGRUBER: Is a better to use our water to grow alfalfa sent to China to feed the kids? Or is it better take our water to L.A. to fill the swimming pools and to build golf courses for the movie stars to enjoy their summer afternoon with their hot toddy by the pool?
ROBBINS: Farmer Dave Sharp agrees. There's a long history of place like L.A. and Phoenix growing unchecked at the expense of farming communities. But he's pragmatic. He recognizes every side has to make adjustments.
SHARP: You can't just make more water. You've got to learn to live with what you've got, work with what you've got. And if your lifestyle is using more water than what you have the capability of getting your hands on, something's got to change.
ROBBINS: Maybe that means sending less alfalfa to China. Maybe it means ripping out more lawns in Las Vegas. It could mean both. The ongoing drought is already changing the West, and Westerners need to adapt to it. For NPR News, I'm Ted Robbins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.