The role of ranching communities in water consumption and a changing climate

The American West faces its fifteenth year of low rainfall, sparse snowpack, and warming temperatures in what climatologists believe is only the beginning of a climate-change-induced megadrought that may last a century or more.

n these circumstances it is up to each and every one of us to take our part in water consumption. Yet, while reducing water waste in cities is undoubtedly necessary, the personal and industrial consumption for drinking, washing, flushing, watering the lawn, detailing the car, and cooling nuclear plants, accounts for less than 10 percent of water use in the eleven arid states of the West.

Meantime, food production consumes more fresh water than any other activity in the United States.

So today, we’d like to pause and take a look at the water consumption and practices that we’ve been using for generation in ranching communities of the West.

“Within agriculture in the West, the thirstiest commodity is the cow,” says George Wuerthner, an ecologist at the Foundation for Deep Ecology, who has studied the livestock industry.

According to Christopher Ketcham’s article at NewRepublic.com:

The alfalfa, hay, and pasturage raised to feed livestock in California account for approximately half of the water used in the state, with alfalfa representing the highest-acreage crop. In parts of Montana, as much as 90 percent of irrigated land is operated solely for the production of livestock feed; 90 percent of Nevada’s cropland is dedicated to raising hay. Half of Idaho’s three million acres of irrigated farmland grows forage and feed exclusively for cattle, and livestock production represents 60 percent of the state’s water use. In Utah, cows are the top agricultural product, and three-fifths of the state’s cropland is planted with hay.

All told, alfalfa and hay production in the West requires more than ten times the water used by the region’s cities and industries combined, according to some estimates.

Not only raising of feeding crops is high in water consumption, the situation is worsened by over-grazing of public lands leading to erosion on a public domain whose trees, rich soil, and grasslands function as ecosystem watersheds. Add to that construction of dams and other water diversions that block of natural water-ways and lead to further desertification of eco-systems.

We encourage you to read the full article by Christopher Ketcham at NewRepublic.Com.

[picture credit: By The original uploader was Ellmist at English Wikipedia Later versions were uploaded by Minesweeper at en.wikipedia, , via Wikimedia Commons]