A bumper sticker I recently saw read: “EAT BEEF: the West Wasn’t Won on Salad.” Ironic, I thought, since the West may be lost to alfalfa. Alfalfa that is grown here…for cattle. 

Maybe you’ve read the statistics, seen the photos: Lakes Mead and Powell now at roughly 25% of full capacity, their chalky white “bathtub rings” of minerals deposited on once-submerged rock walls now stretching 180 and 140 ft above current water levels. Lake Mead is now 156 ft above “dead pool” – the level at which water no longer flows through Hoover Dam. With Lake Powell a mere 32 ft above dead pool, over four million people could lose their hydroelectric power within a few years.

Perhaps, too, you’re familiar with the thorny and complex history of Colorado River water allocation: the 1922 compact that divvied up the river among seven Upper and Lower Basin states and Mexico; the overestimation back then of total river flow – a miscalculation upon which allocations are still based; the “use it or lose it” policy that forces some farmers to dump unused water, rather than forfeit their rights to it; and the unwieldy Farm Bill that locks farmers into growing water-intensive crops, such as cotton, or lose their subsidies, and their shirts, altogether. 

Now, a century later, with an 80-fold increase in the Colorado River Basin population, a protracted megadrought, and less snowpack in the Rockies due to climate change, demand for water is up and supply is down. Way down. 

A full 6% of the Colorado River returns to the water cycle through evaporation and leakage beneath the reservoirs before any of us use it. Of the water we do harvest, 6% goes to residential use and another 8% goes to commercial and industrial uses including office buildings, golf courses, power plants, and mines. What’s left – the remaining 86% – is used for crop irrigation. Alfalfa, while drought resistant and relatively water efficient, is the single largest consumer of agricultural water in California due to its high acreage and perennial growth. Together with grass hay and corn silage, alfalfa accounts for 32% of the west’s water footprint. Put another way, a third of all water used in the seven Basin states goes to feeding cows. 

Americans eat four times more beef, on average, than everyone else on the planet. Meanwhile, a good ten percent of the cattle forage grown in the southwest is shipped overseas to China, Japan, and the Middle East. Given the over 8,000 McDonalds in these countries, it’s not surprising people there have developed a taste for beef. Saudi Arabia is actually buying farmland in California and Arizona to grow hay, so they don’t have to tap their own water reserves. We are essentially exporting water in the form of alfalfa. 

How, then, do we begin to align the west’s demand for water with its dwindling supply, thereby averting a mass migration to the Great Lakes? Here are a few suggestions: 

First, perhaps we could cooperate. As entrenched as the situation seems, we must move beyond the “water wars.”

Second, let all ranchers follow the example of those ranchers in our area, like Bill Brake of the Rose Tree Ranch in Elgin, who reduce irrigation (and sequester carbon in the soil) by implementing rotational grazing programs. (See Stephen Williams’ article in the March 2021 issue of the PRT.) 

Third, could we put a moratorium on foreign land sales? On endless urban sprawl in this region?

Lastly, dare I say it: Maybe we Americans could simply EAT LESS BEEF. Who knows? The West Might Well Be Saved…By Salad.