Carefree Use of Groundwater Is Making Us Thirsty

Environment Policy Brief #164 | By: Todd J. Broadman | January 30, 2024
Photo taken from: www.popularmechanics.com

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Summary

There is a depletion of groundwater in the U.S. Much of the reason has to do with industrial scale agriculture used to grow crops that feed animals. A primary culprit is alfalfa. Alfalfa is a legume and is preferred by beef cattle producers because beef cattle raised on alfalfa hay get bigger faster, and dairy cows fed alfalfa produce more milk. Alfalfa contains more than 1,800 pounds of protein per acre on an annual basis and as a result is the top cash crop in many states. Farmers can’t get enough of this “high quality forage.” That high protein content requires copious amounts of water to grow; alfalfa ranks as one of the most water-intensive crops, requiring about 1,630,000 gallons of water per acre. On average, that’s equivalent to annual water use for 10 residential homes. Over 6 million acres of American farmland is dedicated to growing water-hungry alfalfa.

Furthermore, there is a direct line connection between alfalfa, dairy cows, and the American diet. In addition to demand for beef, increasingly, chicken is preferred – and the consumer demand for cheese has skyrocketed as well. Cheese consumption has nearly doubled over the last few decades, driven by the popularity of cheese covered pizza. In 2023, the average consumer tipped the scales, consuming over 100 pounds of chicken, a doubling in proportions, similar to the increase in cheese consumption. (The Eat-Lancet Commission recommends the optimal diet ought to be closer to one quarter of those amounts).

According to Brian Richter, president of Sustainable Waters, crops grown for cattle feed are the “greatest consumer of river water in the western United States.” One telling statistic is that 55 percent of water in the Colorado River Basin is used to grow feed crops including alfalfa, grass hay, and corn. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent of monitoring wells hit record lows in the past decade.

This is why in states like Nevada, alfalfa is the state’s top cash crop, while in Arkansas it is soybeans – to feed the billion or so chickens in that region of the country. As with alfalfa, the soy crop too, is largely dependent upon water from depleted aquifers. The amount of irrigated acreage dedicated to soybean production, mostly used for animals, has seen an 800 percent increase over the last 5 decades. And then there is the water required for corn, about half of which also goes toward animal feed, whose acreage has gone up 600 percent over the same period.

Arizona is typical of many western states in that there are no legal limits to use of groundwater, a finite resource. This availability of groundwater has led foreign investors (Saudi Arabia figures prominently in Arizona) to purchase land in unregulated states and grow crops like alfalfa in an otherwise arid desert – and then ship the crop home to feed cattle. For these reasons, in the absence of federal regulations on aquifer use, states are now creating rules where little or no regulation existed. There are more calls to decrease alfalfa production in western states that depend on the Colorado River. This is an uphill battle though, as is the case in traditional farming cultures, the value of freedom to: choose crops planted based on economics as well as respond to consumer demand.

Analysis

In the face of the looming water shortage, we have a western farming culture that focuses on the immediate short-term economics and  freedom of choice for the American consumer. California farmer Ronnie Leimgruber reflects that culture when he states that “the reason I grow alfalfa is because it’s the most profitable crop that I can grow, because that’s what people want to buy.” Environmental concerns are not on his radar. “If they wanted to buy more lettuce or more onions or more tomatoes,” he poses, “I would grow up for them — if it was more profit. But currently, people like eating pizzas. They like eating beef. They like eating Happy Meals at McDonald’s. They like eating cheese quesadillas. And I produce the feedstock that feeds the cattle that makes all those products.”

The environmental reality though, is that each pound of cheese produced requires, on average, 10 pounds of milk. And the cows producing that milk need to eat high-protein foods that require vast quantities of water, like alfalfa.

Farmers grow alfalfa because it is very profitable – selling for a high of $320 per ton in 2022, up from $210 the year before, making it more lucrative than other large-scale crops like wheat. With sufficient water, alfalfa can be harvested up to 10 times a year. It provides nutritious and healthy feed for cattle and dairy cows, which means there’s significant demand for it both in the United States and overseas in regions such as the Middle East and Asia.

Fortunately, there are those, like Brian E. Olmstead, who serves on Idaho’s Water Resource Board and issues a cautionary message: “Everybody thought, this was such a huge resource, we can’t ever deplete it.” Major global dairy food producers like Glanbia of Ireland, Lactalis of France and Agropur of Canada all operate large processing plants in western states. Glanbia alone has four plants in Idaho, which use 4.3 billion pounds of milk a year. They are aware of the significant toll their production exacts on water resources. Exports of alfalfa and other hay types also play a significant role in water usage; almost 20% of alfalfa was exported in 2021, and most of that to China. They are paying top dollar to U.S. producers to support their growing domestic dairy industry.

Speaking out on behalf of our aquifers are people like Gerald McKenna, on the board of the Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs, California. He states bluntly that, “We can do one simple thing and our water supply crisis will be over. We can stop growing alfalfa.” His declaration is sensible, “It seems to me to be just crazy to be growing that water-thirsty product in one of the driest places in the country. And yet that’s what we do.” Like McKenna, Aaron Smith, an agricultural economist at UC-Davis, also speaks for the environment over industry pressures: “From a pure resources perspective, it’s inefficient to grow plants, then feed those to animals and have animals use that energy and then we eat that energy. It would be more efficient to directly eat plants but the problem is, they don’t taste as good.”

When it comes to groundwater depletion, short-term economics and corporate profits are ushered along without much caution or environmental guardrails. In that respect, U.S. aquifers are viewed much like carbon reserves – there for the taking. The hard tradeoffs and sacrifices are right around the corner. That’s when corporate profits dry up along with flow of water.

Engagement Resources:
  • https://foodprint.org is dedicated to research and education on food production practices. Their aim is to pull back the curtain on the impacts of industrial food production practices.
  • https://grist.org  is dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Their goal is to use the power of storytelling to illuminate the way toward a better world.
  • https://www.alfalfa.org is an umbrella organization of state and regional alfalfa seed and alfalfa hay associations, genetic suppliers, seed marketers, and allied industry members dedicated to promoting the interests of the nation’s alfalfa.

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