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Make It Rare: How Beef Production Saps Scarce Western Water

Mike Duniway
A new study found that nearly half of all water consumption in the West either went directly to cows or watered crops to feed cows.

As water becomes more scarce in the Mountain West, a new analysis finds that a surprising amount is being used to raise cattle.

Researchers at Northern Arizona University worked with an international team to map where Western water starts and where it ends up in cities. It found that nearly half of all water consumption in the West either went directly to cows or watered crops to feed cows.

“We’re using a lot of water to grow the cows that are the source of our burgers, steaks and milk,” Ben Ruddell, a study co-author and principal investigator, said in a press release. “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.”

But the study, published this week in the journal Nature Sustainability, also offers a solution: pay more farmers to leave fields temporarily dormant, or fallow.

“A very large fraction of the Western water crisis and the depletion of rivers in the West, including the Colorado River, can be directly addressed by fallowing beef and dairy feed crops like alfalfa and hay,” Ruddell said.

Researchers say the government should fund more programs that allow fields to lie temporarily dormant for crop rotations. While everyone may not agree to more farm subsidies, Ruddell said fallowing programs could save rural Western communities from running out of water down the line.

“We can solve a large fraction of the Western water problem very, very affordably using rotational fallowing,” he said.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.