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Science and Innovations

Study: Beef, Dairy Production Linked To Depleted Rivers

Melissa Sevigny

A new studyfrom Northern Arizona University shows the impact raising cattle has on water resources in the West. Scientists with a project called FEWSION made a detailed map of how much river water is used for crops that feed cows. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke to author Ben Ruddell about how the findings could inform water policies. 

Melissa Sevigny: What was the question you had going into this project?

Ben Ruddell: One of our biggest problems right now in the food, energy, and water system is that we’re running out of water in western United States… The question we’re looking at how can we best help, and sustain and restore, western U.S. rivers, and also at the same time how do we protect and sustain future economic activity and growth in the western U.S. We’re trying to solve the water problem by working on more than water.

So  how do you go about answering a big question like that?

We started out by mapping the supply chain of the United States all the way from rivers which generally provide water, through the use of the water—it gets used for electric power generation, for watering cities… but also most importantly in the western United States, 86% of our water gets used for irrigating crops. Then we look at what those crops are used for. Among other things, a lot of those crops—almost 50 percent in the western U.S.—are used to feed cattle. Cattle then produce beef products and dairy products which go back to be consumed by people in cities.  

One of the things you found was the amount of water that people take out of the Colorado River to drink in Los Angeles is less than the amount of water they’re taking out to grow crops to feed cattle, is that right?

Yeah, that’s right. Put succinctly, they are using more water to grow their cows than to run their showers and water their lawns.

One of the potential solutions you’re suggesting is these rotational fallowing programs. Can you describe what that is?

Rotational fallowing is when someone who needs more water pays a farmer—in this case a farmer of hay or alfalfa which feed cows—to stop growing those crops and leave the water in the river so that someone else can use it. There is a payment that happens. There’s a mechanism to make sure that payment is adequate and efficient. Then on a temporary basis while there isn’t enough water to go around to meet everybody’s needs, then that crop is fallowed… I view rotational fallowing, and programs like this, which give farmers, irrigation districts, and rural communities a chance to be a part of the solution—it’s actually a way to sustain the farming way of life in the west, because it gives you a way to weather the overall political and financial pressures which are otherwise pulling water away from farms.

Now we’re talking specifically about crops that are used to feed cattle. Would this mean that beef and dairy products would become more expensive?

It might. Very likely there would be some effect on prices. But it’s going to be small, because only about 5% of the cattle feed in the U.S. is grown in the Colorado River Basin. Even though we use so much of our water in the West to produce that feed, it’s still just a very small fraction of the national feed supply. Will you have to pay more for your burger? Yes. Probably not much more. But it’s something we should be willing to do, because water sustainability is extremely important in the western United States.

Ben Ruddell, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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