The thirstiest commodity is the cow

Many startling figures and percentages here – Christopher Ketcham in The New Republic a year ago on the way cattle ranching is sucking the west dry.

Food production consumes more fresh water than any other activity in the United States. “Within agriculture in the West, the thirstiest commodity is the cow,” says George Wuerthner, an ecologist at the Foundation for Deep Ecology, who has studied the livestock industry. Humans drink about a gallon of water a day; cows, upwards of 23 gallons. The alfalfa, hay, and pasturage raised to feed livestock in California account for approximately half of the water used in the state, with alfalfa representing the highest-acreage crop…90 percent of Nevada’s cropland is dedicated to raising hay. Half of Idaho’s three million acres of irrigated farmland grows forage and feed exclusively for cattle, and livestock production represents 60 percent of the state’s water use. In Utah, cows are the top agricultural product, and three-fifths of the state’s cropland is planted with hay. All told, alfalfa and hay production in the West requires more than ten times the water used by the region’s cities and industries combined, according to some estimates. Researchers at Cornell University concluded that producing one kilogram of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing one kilogram of grain protein. It is a staggeringly inefficient food system.

Especially when water is a scarce resource…and also, by the way, necessary for life. If we run out of water we’re dead.

So, the whole thing should be less wasteful, yeah?

One obvious and immediate solution to the western water crisis would be to curtail the waste of the livestock industry. The logical start to this process would be to target its least important sector: public lands ranching. The grazing of cattle and sheep on hundreds of millions of acres of federally managed land has been a fact of western rural life for over 100 years. It is considered an almost sacred profession…Grazing cattle and sheep in this arid landscape is the single most important cause of erosion and desertification on a public domain whose trees, rich soil, and grasslands function as ecosystem watersheds. “Livestock production, along with its coddled baby sibling, public lands ranching,” says Jon Marvel, founder of the Idaho nonprofit Western Watersheds Project (WWP), “is responsible for the largest single human use, degradation, and pollution of public watersheds in the western United States.”

Yet these are the people claiming the federal government is oppressing them.

According to Marvel, a single cow on public land can deposit over a ton of waste on the ground every month, with a high percentage of that waste seeping into surface water. A single cattle feedlot in Idaho, located a mile from the Snake River, produces more untreated solid and liquid waste every day than four cities the size of Denver.

Wo! That one knocked me back when I read it.

“Every stream on public lands grazed by livestock is polluted and shows a huge surge in E. coli bacterial contamination during the grazing season,” says Marvel. “No wonder we can’t drink the water.”

But it’s ranchers who have stolen Malheur wildlife refuge. I guess they think they should get to destroy all the land.

Ketcham goes on to explain that ranchers have a lock on the government, not because they buy it the way other industries, but just because of the mystique of the cowboy. They get massive subsidies, they pay drastically reduced taxes, and they’re given lots of exemptions.

In 2013, the Obama administration directed the BLM to assess ecological damage caused by human activity in the western United States. Livestock was exempted from the study.

Brilliant, isn’t it? It’s like doing a study of traffic congestion and exempting cars.

Everyone knows that climate-created drought in the West is made undeniably worse by livestock production. We are trying to bend the natural landscape to our will by raising a water-loving animal in the desert. The dewatering of streams and rivers for irrigation is the reason so many fish and amphibians in the West are endangered. The majority of dams that block the migration of salmon and steelhead are built primarily for irrigation water storage so we can grow alfalfa. “The capture of the West’s landscape by the cattle industry may be one of the biggest ongoing mistakes of our history,” says Wuerthner. And for what? To protect a mythological hero called the cowboy.

John Wayne and Gary Cooper have a lot to answer for.

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