All over the world, the rate at which humans consume fresh water is now approaching or surpassing the rate at which water sources are being naturally replenished, creating water shortages for people and ecosystems.An important new study published this week in Nature Sustainability finds that irrigated crop production accounts for 86 percent of all water consumed in the western US — and of all the water used on western farms, by far the largest portion goes to cattle-feed crops such as alfalfa and grass hay. To alleviate the severe shortage of water in the region — especially in the Colorado River basin — the study’s authors suggest that rotational fallowing farmland, leaving the land uncultivated for a period of time, could be a simple and affordable means of dramatically reducing water use in the region. Beef and dairy production depleting water supply.
The study set out to assess river flow depletion across the US, identify the factors driving this depletion and evaluate options to reduce vulnerability to water shortages. According to the study, the team’s findings “led to closer examination of the water use and ecological impacts associated with irrigation of cattle-feed crops. We pinpointed locations where these crops were being grown and modelled their associated depletion of river flow in local sub-watersheds.We’re using a lot of water to grow the cows that are the source of our burgers, steaks and milk,In the Colorado River basin, that cattle feed water use is nearly three times greater than all the water used for urban, industrial and electrical power purposes combined.Water security and river health in the western US will depend on the willingness of urban and rural water users to collaborate in design of demand-management strategies, the ability of political leaders to secure funding to implement those strategies and the willingness of beef and dairy consumers to reduce their consumption or select products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops.We need to be willing to pay a little more for more sustainable beef and dairy products, and we must strongly support politicians and policies that are willing to invest in solutions to the western water problem — including infrastructure, environmental flows and smart economic solutions like fallowing. Act with your votes and with your dollars. This is a problem we can afford to solve!