Human consumption of freshwater is now approaching or surpassing the rate at which water sources are being naturally replenished in many regions; creating water shortage risks for people and ecosystems. Here we assess the impact of human water uses and their connection to water scarcity and ecological damage across the United States; identify primary causes of river dewatering and explore ways to ameliorate them. We find irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States; implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region. We assess opportunities for alleviating water scarcity by reducing cattle-feed production; finding that temporary rotational fallowing of irrigated feed crops can markedly reduce water shortage risks and improve ecological sustainability. Long-term water security and river ecosystem health will ultimately require Americans to consume less beef that depends on irrigated feed crops.
Richter, Brian D.; Bartak, Dominique; Caldwell, Peter; Davis, Kyle Frankel; Debaere, Peter; Hoekstra, Arjen Y.; Li, Tianshu; Marston, Landon; McManamay, Ryan; Mekonnen, Mesfin M.; Ruddell, Benjamin L.; Rushforth, Richard R.; Troy, J. Tara. 2020. Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production. Nature Sustainability. 3: 319-328. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0483-z