Guzzling the West’s Water

It’s all those golf courses, green lawns, and fountains wasting water in an arid region; right?


A brief look at the statistics on water use in the West tell that it is agriculture, not western cities that consume the water. Within agriculture one water use stands out. Growing feed for cattle!

Cattle are the primary reason the West is short on water. It’s almost a crime that few people realize this fact.

Guzzling the West’s Water. By George Wuerthner. Writers on the Range in New West.






  1. JB Avatar

    More confirmation that “growing” cattle in the semi-arid West is a bad idea. I hope stories like this will persuade more people to boycott beef.

  2. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Boycotting beef will do nothing to stop the rape of the western public lands, as a good majority of it is shipped over seas to other countries…now if you can get them to boycott beef, you might be on to something, but please understand why beef is grown and where it goes…

  3. vicki Avatar

    Save Bears,
    Notthat I am boycotting beef- but understanding where it goes is not as big of a factor as you might think.
    I just read up a bit-
    The beef that is shipped out of country is largely from corporate feed lot beef. They will not be effected one bit if we boycotted beef. They could care less.
    The people that will be effected are small scale beef ranchers who do utilize public lands. By virtue of their situation and business practices, they have little ability to afford the costs related to shipping their product very far. Most small ranchers, from what I have read, send their beef to local, or semi close markets. To send them any farther would cost them so much that they would be unable to turn enough profit to surive.
    I have been told by a patient at my practice (she ranches bison) that more and more small ranchers are taking second jobs to support their ranching business-thus leaving me to believe that there is little future in ranching unless you are a large corporation. It also explains why their is such desperation for some ranchers to retain their grazing permits…they cannot begin to pay for feeding their cattle otherwise, let alone profitting if they had to do just that.

    But we cannot simply point fingers at ranchers. I am certain that lawns, and home owners associations that require so many plants and certain shades of green lawns etc., and golf courses, and businesses with water sucking land scapes, the list is endless…including the guy next door who flushes his toilet too often or has a leaky water spigot.

    We can also chalk it up to the unaffordability of alternative growing options for farmers….and since the average American doesn’t want to pay more for produce, that won’t stop soon.

  4. vicki Avatar

    I actually just started watching listening to a program (Oprah, go figure) that is addressing an initiative in California to require cattle, chickens, and pigs to have more room to roam before slaughter. It would put a new spin on ranching as it would require all beef cattle to be able to roam or be given a certain amount of space per cow.
    It pushes free range chickens and poultry products.

    One side says that if we demand it, the prices would not go up. The other says it will weeken supply and therefore increase prices. Neither wants us to know that the price will go up initially, but may eventually decline… Initially it would go up leaps and bounds, and the number of ranchers and poultry farmers who would become unemployed and end up homeless (most reside on their farms) will be a big factor as well.

    We cannot have everything both ways folks. As much as we’d ike to believe that it is more humane, we have got to see that it is a lot harder to control desease and damage when livestock and poultry are not confined.

    This has everything to do with where we place our loyalty, or hearts. Save the land…or save the market values, graze on public land, or confine cattle to feed lots and private land, use a ton of water for a pretty yard, or keep the water flowing for endangered trout. Tough choices in good times, let alone hard times.

  5. JB Avatar

    “Boycotting beef will do nothing to stop the rape of the western public lands, as a good majority of it is shipped over seas to other countries…”

    Save Bears: It all starts with knowledge. People will not be willing to boycott, ban, restrict, or take any other actions against the cattle industry until they understand that raising beef is bad for the environment. Boycotting beef is simply the first step in the process.

  6. vicki Avatar

    I have always wondered, maybe you know, where do cattle belong? They have to be native some place. So where are they suited for, and how many?
    Do you think we artificially inflate their numbers to an extreme?

  7. SmokyMtMan Avatar

    “Cattle were originally identified by Carolus Linnaeus as three separate species. These were Bos taurus, the European cattle, including similar types from Africa and Asia; Bos indicus, the zebu; and the extinct Bos primigenius, the aurochs. The aurochs is ancestral to both zebu and European cattle. More recently[verification needed] these three have increasingly been grouped as one species, with Bos primigenius taurus, Bos primigenius indicus and Bos primigenius primigenius as the subspecies.

    Complicating the matter is the ability of cattle to interbreed with other closely related species. Hybrid individuals and even breeds exist, not only between European cattle and zebu but also with yaks (called a dzo), banteng, gaur, and bison (“cattalo”), a cross-genera hybrid. For example, genetic testing of the Dwarf Lulu breed, the only humpless “Bos taurus-type” cattle in Nepal, found them to be a mix of European cattle, zebu and yak.[2] Cattle cannot successfully be bred with water buffalo or African buffalo.

    The aurochs originally ranged throughout Europe, North Africa, and much of Asia. In historical times, their range was restricted to Europe, and the last animals were killed by poachers in Masovia, Poland, in 1627. Breeders have attempted to recreate cattle of similar appearance to aurochs by crossing of domesticated cattle breeds, creating the Heck cattle breed. ”

    “A 400-page United Nations report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that cattle farming is “responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases.”

    “The world cattle population is estimated to be about 995,838,000 head.

    India is the nation with the largest number of cattle, about 281,700,000 or 28.29% of the world cattle population.

    Brazil: 187,087,000, 18.79%;

    China: 139,721,000, 14.03%;

    United States: 96,669,000, 9.71%;

    EU-27: at 87,650,000, 8.80%;

    Argentina: 51,062,000, 5.13%; Australia: 29,202,000, 2.93%;

    South Africa: 14,187,000, 1.42%;

    Canada: 13,945,000, 1.40% and other countries: 49,756,000 5.00%.

    Africa has about 20,000,000 head of cattle.”

  8. vicki Avatar

    So then basically, there are a “crap load” of cows. And they are like sharks…super species, except that they had natural predators.
    Shame on those predators for still seeing them as prey animals. (Did we really think we could train wild animals toleave them alone when they are the only prey base around?)
    We domesticate them, and remove the existence of their predators in within their occupied habitat (or try to), and wonder why they contribute almost a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gasses. How can we then ask why they are destructive? They ame darn way the elk in Rocky Mountain National Park are, because we removed the natural balance of predator vs. prey! Therefore we enable the elk (or cows) to eat everything in sight, and multiply beyond the habitat’s capacity to support them.
    Ah ha! I get it. (I kinda already did, but didn’t know the exact origin of cattle or what their part in their original environment may have been. Appearantly they were even seen as game at some point.)
    Thanks Smoky!

  9. SmokyMtMan Avatar

    No problem, Vicki.

    I was aware of how many cattle were in the U.S., but the cattle populations of the other countries stunned me. That is one cow for every 6 people on earth!

    Simply astonishing.

    I don’t eat beef, and haven’t for a very long time. Not because of the negative environmental effects of cattle, but because it’s a very unhealthy food. However, beef is a favorite food of much of the world’s citizens and I do not believe we will have much success reducing these numbers.

    Indeed, I would wager a small sum that world cattle populations steadily increase as the world’s standards of living rise each year.

    How can any government restrict it’s food sources for environmental reasons when many countries can’t produce enough food for their people in the first place?

    The inevitable and steady human population growth is the root of every environmental problem we have.

    And I didn’t say that, E.O. Wilson did. I just agree 100%.

  10. vicki Avatar

    Sometimes I honestly think we put way too much political umph into basic choices.
    Somethings are plain and clear, some are very grey….but people starving is a simple no brainer. No matter what you stand for, if you have a heart at all, feeding people should count.
    Having said that, I would seriously look at what is cheaper and safer to supply people with.
    Either way clean water is a necessity.
    I just signed a grass roots petition for the preservation of the Clean Water Act. They have some very brave young Americans walking door to door here in Colorado to get people to vote wisely. A very polite young lady just came knocking on my door. It is cold and dark, and the neighborhood can be scarey. She is a brave soul and obviously believes strongly in what she is doing. She said she wants to earn her degree in the field of sustainable housing or studying the disappearance of bees. Smart girl! I admire them, as they are restoring my confidence in the youth of today. Maybe they aren’t all spoiled and lazy 🙂 I hope they succeed.
    Perhaps theirs is the generation that will solve some of the problems that we have all created.
    I know seeing younger voters doing the grass roots good fight has me smiling ear to ear!

  11. SmokyMtMan Avatar

    Vicki said: “Somethings are plain and clear, some are very grey….but people starving is a simple no brainer. No matter what you stand for, if you have a heart at all, feeding people should count.”

    I really liked your post.

    One of the things about my love for the environment that I struggle with is the balance between the environment and the needs of the poor of the world. For instance, in the U.S., we have destroyed about 95% of our old-growth forests on the path to develop a country that enjoys a very high standard of living.

    Brazil wants desperately to develop the amazon basin for the same reasons: to provide Brazilians with more of the wealth and luxuries we currently enjoy. Who am I to to work against that poor Brazilian farmer, or timber logger, or miner, when they attempt to develop their natural resources in the amazon so they can enjoy life as we do?

    Are we right to insist they stop cutting the rain forest because we value the idea of keeping that ecosystem intact and in it’s natural state? The cattle ranches that are expanding into the amazon are simply attempting to raise their families standards of living, as generations of Americans have done in the West.

    People are starving to death in Africa, yet we stop them from harvesting bush meat. Is this ethical? In Rwanda, the Virunga Nat’l Park is home to the last mountain gorillas. But those Rwandans on that park’s borders are desperately impoverished, and the resources of that Park would alleviate a lot of their suffering. Is it right to prevent the development of those resources if it results in human suffering?

    How about Kenya killing poachers in their parks? Is it ethical to kill a human to save an animal? What if that poacher’s family is starving, as is sometimes the case?

    I bet most of the world’s environmental degradation is caused by people getting food or shelter for themselves. Perhaps I over-think this, I am guilty of that at times, but these questions are hard for me to to answer.

  12. JB Avatar


    I don’t think you’re over-thinking the problem; rather, most people under-think it. Just remember, human population growth is not an inevitability; many European counties are at or below population replacement, and the U.S. is following suit. We are essentially at zero population growth if you discount immigration. People simply tend to have fewer children as their wealth and education increases.

    You said: “How can any government restrict it’s food sources for environmental reasons when many countries can’t produce enough food for their people in the first place?”

    As the story points out, raising cattle requires a LOT of water. As water continues to become more scarce in the West, we (society) will increase pressure on livestock producers to curtail their activities. Moreover, it isn’t just the semi-arid West where cattle are a problem. It isn’t cost-effective to raise cattle; as E.O. Wilson has pointed out, we put the land to much better use by raising crops–that is, we’re actually able to produce MORE food with LESS land when we produce fruits and vegetables.

    Finally, as you pointed out, beef is extremely bad for you. Especially if you’re an overfed American. My father died a few years back (aged 62) of a massive heart attack that was essentially brought on by a diet full of animal products (clogged arteries). Reducing beef production (and other animal products, for that matter) would increase their cost, which might help make us a healthier nation in the long run.

    Sorry for rambling on. What we as a nation should do about livestock is a complicated question that deserves more depth than can be achieved in this type of format.

  13. vicki Avatar

    I also ask these questions. My resolve remains that there are some areas we must maintain. Some species we must preserve. Because if we fail to do so, humans as a species will become quickly endangered.
    What is the answer? Well, in part, good conscience on behalf of world governments. But that may be relatively hard to ever get.
    I do know we (the USA) literally pay farmers not to sell their crops in some instances. Though I am not entirely sure of the circumstances, perhaps those crops could be sent abroad.
    Maybe we should defer to the Peace Corps. I am told they have plans on developing shelter, food and water sustainability for even those most destitute places. Obviously people already inhabit these areas. So maybe we should asist the Peace Corps in teaching environmental sustainability too? Maybe when they are educating these poor populations, they should help them to develope plans that would enable them to work with nature instead of against it. Perhaps even plans that would help these people create income from projects that would aid the environment?
    Maybe in Africa, we help build small apartments in the dumps (literally) that people live in. Have those folks seperate and recycle materials found in the dumps…paper, wood, tin, steele.They could be paid for the service or at very least they could be paid for the materials they recycle. Heck, I don’t know, but some person out there could think of a solution in one place, and that will get the ball rolling in many. And for goodness sake, give them condoms! Help the children of that country grow up with parents!!!! The amount of orphans due to AIDS is astounding and we should all find it shameful that we don’t do atleast a little to help stop it!
    At any rate, I agree that there are so many middle-ground dilemas that we face. But it is mostly important that we do face them, and that we begin to think. Just thinking about it will bring about the right conscious process that can someday find a solution.
    I think part of the problem is that so many people have good ideas on how to help. But how do they get anything done? Who can they get to listen or act on those ideas? Empowering change is the biggest part of achieving it.

  14. vicki Avatar

    I think we posted at the same time.
    Population growth is an issue. A huge one at that! Another reason why republicans who favor ending funding for contraception will not get my vote.

  15. outsider Avatar

    JB Smoky, I can show you study after study that proves lean red meat is essicatal in a healthy diet, but I’m not really try to change your mind just want the rest of the people who visit here to see both sides. A quick question to all of you, Who owns most of this water that you say is being wasted by produceing beef? I could be wronge but I think that it belongs to the farmers and ranchers, and if they chose to they can grow what they want or they can even sell it to Las Vegas or Salt Lake, or Reno. I can already here the cries of protest, but fokes its going to happen when you get ride of public land ranching, those people are going to make a living one way or another, just as you would use all the resourses at your disposal to your families feed and your lifestly in tact.

  16. JB Avatar


    Certainly protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, and red meat is a major source of protein. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have red meat, or that we should quit raising cattle; I’m suggesting that we (society) raise too many cattle and eat too much red meat. The Greeks had the right of it, “everything in moderation.” [For full disclosure: I eat meat (red and otherwise), but avoid beef]

    – – – –

    Who “owns” water is a question that is being debated (and litigated) across the country. In many instances in the West, farmers and ranchers have water rights (i.e. the right to take a certain amount of water from a particular source). This is quite different from “owning” the water, as we cannot guarantee the availability of water from year to year (as many in the West are only now learning).

    Your claim that landowners can do whatever they want with water on their land is only true to the extent that state, federal, and local regulations allow. As water becomes more scarce, restrictions on its use will increase. And don’t think it will come from the Midwest; the states and Canadian provinces have worked out a treaty that will make it harder to remove water from the Great Lakes for outside purposes; it can be read here:

  17. catbestland Avatar

    If I’m not mistaken, the water belongs to the state which includes ALL the people in that state, not just the farmers and ranchers. That is why Water Users Associations are formed. The members are normally farmers and ranchers who pay dues which pay for the irrigation systems and buy shares from the state’s water supplies. Here again they pay a ridiculously low amount per share for the use of this water. The law states that the used water or run off must be returned to the state water systems in drainages. Often times this water is so poluted from running through cattle pastures and chemically fertilized fields that it contaminates the entire water supply downstream. Therefore, even though the water users have paid (barely) for the use of the water, they have contaminated the water for the rest of the people.

  18. SmokyMtMan Avatar

    Outsider said: “I can show you study after study that proves lean red meat is essential in a healthy diet.”

    This is simply not true. There is nothing in any meat that you cannot get in other food sources. In college, I distinctly remember a lecture by a doctor that told us that a baked bean sandwich on wheat bread contains all the necessary basics for human survival.

    All the amino acids present in meat are found in many other foods; protein can be found in many kinds of nuts, for example.

    Outsider, if your statement was true, we would not have any vegans in the world! And I know a few of them, and they seem to be doing just fine. 🙂

    Outsider said: “Who owns most of this water that you say is being wasted by producing beef?”

    This is a good and valid point. I know in the west there exists private water rights. I have seen a ranch near Stanley, Idaho, for sale. The ad said the sale included water rights to a good part of the river’s flow, and this right extended back a long time. That percentage of that river’s flow (can’t remember the river’s name) was not owned by the citizens of Idaho. It was owned by the family that was selling the ranch.

    In Nevada, I have read that some ranchers have sold their water rights to Las Vegas.

    I have never heard of water rights here in the east, but I suppose that’s because we have so much of it and dividing it up was never necessary.

  19. SmokyMtMan Avatar

    JB said: “E.O. Wilson has pointed out, we put the land to much better use by raising crops.”

    This may be true of our arid West, but how about the rest of the world? The Great Smokies Mts of the Appalachians were settled by the poorest of the poor. The soils were thins, the slopes step and rugged, and covered in dense forest and rocks that were very difficult to clear for agriculture.

    Yet, in many instances, even they possessed cattle. Cattle can eat almost anything, a herd can grow large if taken care of, cattle provide labor in terms of plowing or pulling a sled, cattle provide both meat and milk, and they are very strong and don’t succumb to disease too often.

    If a poor Brazilian let a few cattle loose onto a cleared rain forest tract, that cow will end up producing meat and milk for very little expense. So much so, that cattle operations have been one of the top reasons the amazon has seen such destructive rates of clearing in the last decade or two.

    Same in India, parts of Africa, and China. Cattle are the poor man’s crop, basically. Cattle do well in arid areas where crops would require extensive irrigation. Indeed, when I visited the Organ Pipe Nat’l monument, a harsh desert that receives around 10 inches of rain per year, I was surprised to learn cattle were raised there by the settlers. You couldn’t grow crops there, though.

    So, again, who am I to dictate to the poor of the world that they must preserve their biodiversity over raising food for the families?

    This is the world’s major environmental conundrum, and I see few solutions.

  20. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    It really depends on “who” owns the water, in many western states, property comes with “Water Rights” the oldest water rights dictate who can do what with the water, in the particular area I live, my piece of property holds the oldest water rights, which was filed with the parcel in something like 1883 or there abouts, in other words, if we were having a decreased flow, I can actually stop others downstream from me, from getting water from the spring that rises on my property..

    It really depends on the state, but I don’t think you will find many water rights claims in the east, but in the west it is indeed a big thing and currently there is a big lawsuit between the states of Montana and Wyoming over water rights…

  21. JB Avatar

    Smoky says: “So, again, who am I to dictate to the poor of the world that they must preserve their biodiversity over raising food for the families…This is the world’s major environmental conundrum, and I see few solutions.”

    You’ve described what Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons” (1968, see: Essentially, Hardin’s central thesis was that common-pool resources essentially encouraged people to act in selfish and ultimately self-destructive manner because costs were incurred by the group while the benefits were accrued by individuals. Hardin concluded the only way to deal with such tragedies was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” This thesis has seen much attention in the scientific literature and many authors have noted exceptions. For example, there are many instances of locals managing common pool resources without formal regulations (coercion), by recognizing that what is good for the resource is ultimately good for everyone–in other words, when they recognize the “tragedy” they act in a way to prevent its occurrence. Of course, this takes people willing to recognize such tragedies, not bury their heads in the sand as the Bush Administration has done with greenhouse gases and global warming.

  22. JB Avatar

    Have I mentioned how much I like the word “essentially”? Sheesh!

  23. outsider Avatar

    maybe if we all just ate more beef we could take care of this nasty cow problem 😉

  24. Ryan Avatar

    “The beef that is shipped out of country is largely from corporate feed lot beef. They will not be effected one bit if we boycotted beef. They could care less.”

    Where is the beef grown before it goes to a feed lot? A lot is directly from our public lands. Also those feedlots are feeding Alfalfa and grain grown in arid areas.

  25. vicki Avatar

    That may be very worthy of consideration.
    The beef in feed lots that I am aware of is bred, born and slaughtered in the feed lot. They are huge.
    Let me check and see what I come up with. Thanks.
    As far as where the grain is grown, it opens another question. What is the line that we are not willing to cross? How many people will we feel it is okay to unemploy? Just a question.

  26. SAP Avatar

    Vicki – calves are not born at feedlots, unless it’s by accident. The animals on feedlots tend to be steers & unbred heifers, not bulls and mature cows.

    If you want a good summary of how the beef industry works, at least in Montana, see this op-ed by an economic development specialist:

    The small-scale ranchers here generally sell their calves to big cattle buyers, then the calves get on trucks and go to the Midwest to eat grain. There is very little in the way of direct-to-consumer or local marketing going on, except in a few cases (see the Food Co-op in Bozeman, or read the op-ed link above for information about bioregional beef production).

    But, Vicki, your main point still stands: boycotting beef won’t have much effect on public lands grazing policies. People are fond of pointing out that very little of the nation’s beef comes from public lands. Depending on how it’s measured (AUMs, dry weight of forage . . ) and what sources to believe, somewhere between 2 and 9 percent of the nation’s beef cattle spend SOME time grazing federal lands.

    Since the beef that is raised on public lands goes into the giant corn-belt system along with most of the other cattle in the nation, it would be pretty difficult to target a boycott at JUST the public lands ranchers.

  27. vicki Avatar

    I spent a little while talking and reading about this with a local bison rancher, and online.
    She told me that there are a lot of operations that used to be C to C. (I had no clue what that meant). Conception to consumption. But that day has since faded, as the smaller operations were haulted by the larger having huge slaughtering and packing facilities were cattle could be easily fed for a year and then slaughtered, all in one location.
    I smell some places like this, I live very near to Swift/ConAgra meat packing. It ain’t pretty people.
    Appearantly the calves are sold as soon as possible, as they are smaller and easier to ship. They go to “feed lots”, like Colorado’s ConAGra,(Monfort) and 5-Star Cattle Systems. They feed the cow, in a feed lot, until it is ready for slaughter. From what I am able to read, most of the cows are on larger acerages, predominently privately owned, and in Colorado fed with waste roughage from sugar beet crops. They also get grain, but Ken Monfort really changed things up with the sugar beet roughage.
    She said (she ranched cows before bison) she would guess that these large scale operations are pretty methodical, using genetics to get max dollars per cow. She also said, they would care less if public grazing stopped because they don’t do it.
    She laughed when I asked if she though boycotting would help. She agreed it is a waste of time. She whole heartedly agreed that this is not an issue of taking cattle off of public lands, but getting Washington out of rancher’s pockets.
    But she did ask what I did…when do you think you have gone too far? Does it end with public land grazing? Or do we push until farmers go under?
    We need farmers, and like it or not, we will need beef-you won’t convince everyone to be a vegan-people WANT to eat it. So when is it enough?
    I wish I knew. Wouldn’t having all the answers be grand?
    Bottom line is, will rising fuel costs, rising costs period, help large scale corporate ranching end public land ranching?

    Heck, I don’t have all, or many answers…but I know we need to stop grazing on what few public lands we have left.

    Thanks so much SAP for the link. I will keep reading even though it is darn depressing.

  28. outsider Avatar

    Vicki, hey I don’t mean to pick on you but you said and I quote from the palin thread,
    “We “spout” our opinions, but I can tell you I didn’t give one ounce of crap. If you disagree with my opinion, so be it…but know I very carefully consider and research the facts before I actually formulate an opinion. And I definitely do before I express that opinion. Rest assured, if you convince me I was wrong, I will be the first to admit it.”

    But you just did it again on this thread,

    “Ryan, That may be very worthy of consideration.
    The beef in feed lots that I am aware of is bred, born and slaughtered in the feed lot. They are huge”

    I know someone else has pointed out that you were wronge but its like you commment before you know what your talking about.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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