Cows! 

If you are a trout angler, you have likely seen the impact cows have on rivers and streams by damaging banks, trampling riparian areas, and otherwise degrading habitat.  You might not be aware that they are also the primary reason for low river flows in the West.  “Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production, published in Nature last month, describes exactly what we are seeing in the upper and middle Deschutes River.  (Thanks to George Wuerthner for sending me this article.)

“We find irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.”  That pretty much sums up the article, but there were some interesting things to consider:

  • …”our hydrologic modelling reveals that cattle-feed irrigation is the leading driver of flow depletion in one-third of all western US sub-watersheds; cattle feed irrigation accounts for an average of 75% of all consumptive use in these 369 sub-watersheds.”

Central Oregon irrigators take 90% of the water from the Deschutes above North Canal Dam in Bend.

  • “We estimate that summer flow depletion (from all sources) is partially responsible for nearly 1,000 instances of increased risk of local extinction of fish species from watersheds in the western US. Of these, 690 (70%) are estimated to have occurred primarily due to irrigation of cattle-feed crops.”
  • “We estimate that 60 fish species in the western US are at elevated risk of imperilment or extinction due to flow depletion, and that 53 (88%) of these are primarily due to irrigation of cattle-feed crops.”

Fish populations in the Deschutes above Lake Billy Chinook are a fraction of their historical levels and bull trout are now extirpated above Big Falls (Crooked River Ranch area).

  • …”irrigation of cattle-feed crops is the dominant water consumer in the western US.”

The 2017 US Department of Agriculture census of Deschutes County states that 23% of farmland is “cropland” and 57% is “pastureland”.  (10% is “woodland” and 10% is “other”.  Rocks?)  Further, approximately 93% of all cropland is used for “forage (hay/haylage)”.  Thus almost 80% of farmland in Deschutes County is used for livestock and livestock feed.   This Farmer Conservation Alliance report states, “pasture was identified as the primary crop type grown throughout COID, accounting for over 96% of the 42,000+ acres of irrigated agriculture.”  (The Ag Census is data for Deschutes County, the FCA report is for all of Central Oregon Irrigation District which extends outside the county.)

  • “In the US overall, beef consumption contributes 22% to the total water footprint of American consumers; beef consumption in the US (36.2 kg per person per year) is 3.9 times the world average (9.3 kg per person per year). The US is also a major producer of beef, accounting for 18% of global beef production in 2017. This supports the finding that beef production and consumption is a major factor in the pressure on freshwater resources in the US, but it is also important to note that US beef consumption is so large that the country must also import around 10% of its beef, suggesting that the beef consumption may also have effects on water resources outside the US.”

I’m not going to become a vegetarian any time soon, but this is certainly another reason to further limit my beef intake.  I did have an excellent Beyond Meat dish just the other night.