Despite the big Western drought, cattle continue to take majority of West’s water

Biggest water user is most definitely not the cities of the West-

When we look at biggest use of water in the Western United States, livestock, meaning cattle, stands alone.

It’s February 2015 and most of the West remains locked in a great drought. It covers all of the West except Montana, Wyoming and about a third of Colorado and Idaho. California, Nevada, and southeast Oregon are locked into the drought the worst. All the water users are trying to conserve. There are very controversial efforts to briefly expand the supply of water by drilling deeper and pumping aquifers even harder, to make it to the end of the drought. This assumes it will have an end.

Competing uses and users of water struggle economically and also politically with each other. Some commercial and environmental interests try to retain some water for fish and wildlife.

Part of the problem of allocating this fading vital resource is the perception of who uses the most water. We commonly hear people complain about the waste of maintaining bluegrass lawns in an arid region. There are similar complaints about ornamental fountains, water parks, car washes, swimming pools, and the like. Cities in general consume water, it’s said. All this, however, pales when compared to agriculture.

There are many ways to present water use figures, but in general in California, ag takes about four times as much water as urban areas. California grows many high value crops such as almonds, onions, strawberries, lettuce, cotton, beans, tomatoes.  Few states grow so many high value crops, but nonetheless, the biggest agricultural user in California is, directly and indirectly, livestock.  It’s irrigated pasture, alfalfa hay, including much exported hay, corn and grain to feed the livestock.

California produces a diversity of livestock, but the lion’s share is cattle.

The Golden State, however, gives us a misleading picture of the amount of water consumed by cattle because California has such a diverse economy. If we look at other western states, cattle as dominant water user truly soars to the top of water use. Unfortunately, beef is a very inefficient way of making protein. No major food is so wasteful of the inputs that create it, and during a drought this makes it doubly the problem. Where is reform?

A new article by Christopher Ketcham shows just how much production of this extravagant meat dominates, depletes the west, and captures its politics. “Big Cattle, Big Gulp: Cowboys and cows are soaking the American West dry.” The New Republic.



, , , , ,



  1. snaildarter Avatar

    Cattle are really bad and Ag in general uses a huge amount of water here in Georgia but Power plants are the real water hogs for cooling. This fact is often left out of the water use mix. Each plant uses almost as much as Metro Atlanta and about a 1/3 is lost to evaporation. Nuclear, coal, Nat gas all bad and then there are Hydro-dams that damage or destroy whole ecosystems. Big solar uses water too, no free lunch when it comes to electricity.

  2. Leslie Avatar

    Wyoming seems to be in a drought this year as well. We haven’t had a snow since xmas and almost every daytime temp in January was above freezing, many times into the 40’s and 50’s! Today will be 45 degrees. The Park has not much snow. Bozeman has none.

  3. Wes Strickland Avatar
    Wes Strickland

    It is somewhat misleading to state that it is agriculture generally or cattle specifically that are using water, in opposition to urban areas. Agriculture produces food and other crops that are used by people, and most people live in urban areas, and increasingly so. So the real consumers of water that is diverted and “used” by agriculture are often in urban areas. The same is true of almost every resource, since cities are such dense use areas.

    I don’t mean that to criticize urban areas, either. Cities are wonderful places to live, and people move there for the amenities they provide. But to draw an opposition between agriculture and urban areas is not useful, other than to score rhetorical points.

    1. rork Avatar

      I object. Those crops could have been grown in an area not requiring irrigation, and they may be consumed by people thousands of miles away.

  4. Gary Ott Avatar
    Gary Ott

    In the arid West livestock feed is often grown on farms that are dependent upon streams for their water. These streams often originate in the same watersheds that livestock is grazed on through the summer months. Cattle in these watersheds damage streams, wetlands and riparian areas. The long term effects dewater streams and reduce available water. It is a lose lose situation that works against agricultural concerns and environmental issues. The solution is to prevent livestock access to stream and wetland environments. Most non-profit environmental organizations are afraid of this issue because of the politically powerful cattlemens association and the lack of understanding by the public. Thios article adresses this issue in more detail.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Thanks for this link Gary.

      Obvious in just my area alone, here in the west, the depletion of stream flow, due to years of trapping beavers out for the sake of ranch land (irrigation use for haying)

      Often wondered what this valley would of looked like a 100 years ago before it was “homesteaded/ranched” and then slowly sold off in bits and pieces thru the years although, the families of the original homesteaders, still have control, water rights (while depleting the water) of “the creek that runs thru the valley” and the hell with other life forms.

      Climate change isn’t going to be a part of their vocabulary or concern, as long as cattle prices (the demand for beef) remain high…….

    2. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      The reasons that I appreciate this site is the opportunity to learn information on wildlife and ecology. Great article and thanks for the link Gary!

  5. monty Avatar

    When I was born the US population was 120 million humans, it is now about 315 million and growing at a rate of about 3 million plus a year. When grass hopper populations explode beyond the lands carrying it is described a plague of locust. Humans use religion, in part, to justify our calamity. The nonsense that human populations must always grow to maintain a healthy growing economy is outrageous.

    Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, spells out the fates of failed previous human societies who ignored the reality of limits.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      + 1

  6. snaildarter Avatar

    I’m afraid wildlife populations will collapse before we do. There really isn’t a good rational argument for running cattle of public lands they do so much damage for such a small amount of beef. Then there are the water and methane issues. I gave it up years ago.

    1. mikepost Avatar

      …and the new news is that grass fed cattle are worse then feed lot cattle from a methane perspective….never an easy choice…

  7. mikepost Avatar

    I hope you guys are willing to give up wine…it ranks right behind cattle as a water consumer and possibly even a worse ecological event once a winery removes all the native vegitation from its new land, then rips the soil at 3′ and adds limestone, etc, and plants the vines. The long term investment requires that the new vines not suffer for many years.

    1. Leslie Avatar

      Mike, I’d agree. In CA they’re still ripping out old oaks and other natives for hobby wineries. Travesty.

  8. Craig Avatar

    The people who own the water rights within a drainage basin use irrigated crops as a means to convert those rights to use the water into cash income. Some of the irrigated crops grown are hay that is fed to livestock. In the Missouri River valley near Townsend where I live, much of the hay is shipped out of state to feed horses in Kentucky, beef cattle in Texas, and dairy cows in Idaho. Some is even shipped to Japan. Our valley also produces a lot of irrigated wheat and potatoes, and virtually all of it is shipped out of state. Cattle could be totally eliminated from the landscape, but the water will be put to economic use because the owners of the water rights have a legal right to do so.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Unfortunately, in much of the West, the powers that be have allocated water rights to various interests that are much greater than the actual water available. In California for instance, water rights users have been allocated over 5 times more water than exists.

      “Restore The Delta has urged the California Water Board to adjudicate all water rights, as the State has granted 5.5 times more water rights than actual water exists in a normal year.” Also, it is well understood that the Colorado River is way over-allocated to the states that want it and say they have rights to take it.

  9. Nancie Avatar

    New report itemizing costs of public lands grazing:

    New website and relevant articles here:


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.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ralph Maughan