Those who enjoy sinking their teeth into a juicy burger probably haven’t thought about how it might impact the water of rivers in the western US.
In the Colorado River basin, water levels have reached historic lows, and researchers are partly blaming beefeaters and dairy lovers across the country, particularly in cities such as Los Angeles, Portland, Denver and San Francisco. A new study is the first of its kind to link beef consumption to the depletion of specific river systems. It shows that using irrigation to raise crops for cattle feed is the largest source of water at both regional and national scales.
“By thinking about where our food is coming from and what resources are needed to produce it, we can make more informed decisions about the impacts of our diets,” says Kyle Davis, an author of the study. He adds that the study shows that food choices in one area of the country can have a significant impact on a completely different region.
Researchers traced water in the western US throughout the domestic supply chain. They found that crops such as alfalfa and corn used in feed were associated with a lot of unsustainable water use.
Across the western US, one third of all consumed water is used to irrigate crops that are grown to feed beef and dairy cattle. And in the Colorado River basin, the amount of water used for cows’ feed crops is more than 50 percent. Water resource officials have said that some of the reservoirs fed by the river will never be full again.
Davis points to fallowing programs, which involve paying farmers to leave crop land uncultivated for a period of time, as a potential solution. So, farmers would be compensated for not planting anything in their fields for a particular growing season, lessening the use of water for irrigation.
“Many farmers are eager to improve the sustainability of their enterprises as long as it makes economic sense,” he says. “Developing incentives aimed at the biggest water users is a common-sense approach to realize the largest benefits for reducing water scarcity.”
Davis adds that if we are continuing to use water at levels that exceed what is available, there could be a point where river levels and groundwater tables are too low to support irrigation. This would mean farmers could be out of luck when it comes to having adequate water to irrigate their fields in these areas.