The Colorado River Is Shrinking. See What’s Using All the Water.
The water supply that 40 million Americans rely on has been pushed to its limit. Reservoirs and wells are running low. This week, the states that rely on water from the Colorado River with the Biden administration on sharing whats left. Whats using all that water? 1.9 trillion gallons of water Amount consumed within the Colorado River basin in a typical year Agriculture Livestock watering (alfalfa, hay, grasses, corn silage) 55% Other crops 448 billion gallons Livestock 1,064 billion gallons Everything else 387 billion gallons 1.9 trillion gallons of water Amount consumed within the Colorado River basin in a typical year Agriculture Livestock watering (alfalfa, hay, grasses, corn silage) 55% Everything else 387 billion Other crop irrigation 448 billion Livestock 1,064 billion gallons 1.9 trillion gallons of water Amount consumed within the Colorado River basin in a typical year Agriculture Livestock watering (alfalfa, hay, grasses, corn silage) 55% Other crop irrigation Everything else Livestock 1,064 billion gallons 448 billion 387 billion 1.9 trillion gallons of water Amount consumed within the Colorado River basin in a typical year Agriculture Livestock watering (alfalfa, hay, grasses, corn silage) 55% Other crop irrigation Everything else Livestock 1,064 billion gallons 448 billion 387 billion The majority of the water in the Colorado River basin more than one trillion gallons is used to grow feed for livestock, connecting the regions water crisis to how much dairy and meat we eat. The crops grown for humans to eat directly, like vegetables, use up less than a quarter of the amount of water that livestock feed does, according to estimates from . And residential consumption, like watering your lawn and taking showers, uses a fifth of what livestock feed does. The Colorado River system stretches across seven states in the Southwest and Mexico, and a complicated set of decades-old laws determines who gets water from the river, and how much. Those rules than the system could sustainably give, experts have said, an imbalance thats worsening as climate change dries out even more of the West. That has led to the widespread use of thirsty crops under a presumption that water is cheap and abundant, said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a research group focused on global water challenges. But thats not the reality. The chart above captures both river water and groundwater withdrawals within the Colorado River basin, but river water makes up the vast majority (about 87 percent) of water use, according to the studys authors. Water that is exported from the basin is not included. To put it in perspective, it could take more than 38 gallons of water, , to produce one quarter-pound beef patty. That includes the water to grow all the feed like alfalfa and hay that the cattle themselves eat. In comparison, you need about five gallons of water to get the same amount of protein from tofu. Dairy products like milk and cheese are even more water-intensive per gram of protein than beef because dairy cows require more energy to produce milk. Theyre often fed alfalfa, in part because its higher in calories and protein. Some tree nuts like almonds can use a relatively large amount of water as well. Water footprint estimates can vary widely depending on the conditions that the livestock are raised in, or the farming practices and technology used. But, in general, beef and dairy are some of the most water-intensive foods we consume. Raising cattle also contributes relatively more , particularly methane, than most other food. And, on average, Americans eat a lot of and . Thirty-seven percent of the water used in the Colorado River basin goes toward growing alfalfa and hay used largely to feed dairy cattle. Thats triple the water that residents in the region use to water lawns, take showers and wash clothes. Alfalfa is a thirsty crop, in part because of its lengthy growing season that allows for multiple harvests per year. Its an export, too. Researchers estimated in the 2020 study that 10 to 12 percent of the irrigated cattle-feed crops grown in the United States are exported, and about 10 percent of beef is exported. Although agriculture dominates water consumption in the West, most of the new demand for water comes from growing cities, Ms. Cooley said, and there are a lot of opportunities to conserve water at the tap. Fewer lawns could make a difference. But experts say what we eat remains the biggest driver of water use along the Colorado. We have to be thinking about dietary changes, said Brian Richter, lead author of the 2020 study and president of the education organization Sustainable Waters. That doesnt necessarily mean quitting meat entirely. Instead, it might look like a mind-set shift: Those products might need to become more of a specialty item in our diets, he said, rather than something we consume every day. Source for water consumption data: in Nature Sustainability | Note: Water used for mining was included in the commercial and industrial category. Estimates of water consumption in the Colorado River basin do not include water exports from the basin, reservoir evaporation or natural losses. Percentages may not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.