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American Cowboy Magazine: Water Rights & Wrongs

(This article previously published in the 2017 issue of American Cowboy Magazine.)

Waste not, want not: As the debate over agriculture’s water use continues, one beef producer weighs in on how ranchers have efficiently cut water use while raising more beef per animal.

Is a hamburger worse for the environment than driving a Hummer? Proponents of the Meatless Monday campaign would certainly like consumers to believe that’s the case. The myth that beef cattle production is bad for the planet is one that’s been circling for decades, and yet, as I look beyond my back porch in Eastern South Dakota and see my cattle grazing in belly-deep grass alongside a variety of wildlife—ranging from birds to deer—I can’t help but believe beef cattle are an important part of the eco-system.

As I write this, my family’s ranch has just received a much-needed inch of rain. I’m thankful for the moisture, as I know other parts of the country aren’t so lucky. Across the country in Salinas, Calif., my friend Celeste Settrini gazes out on her family’s centennial ranch and sees brown. Facing four years of drought, Settrini and her fellow cattlemen are facing the pressures of keeping their cattle fed and watered while having a bulls-eye on their backs from the mainstream media.

“The many Californian consumers I’ve visited with in recent years tell me how much they love the wide open spaces and the beauty of cattle grazing,” said Settrini. “But, when they hear about how much water agriculture uses, they don’t always make the connection from farm to fork and how that water is used to produce the burgers they enjoy on their backyard grills. Like many mainstream Americans, they have never had to worry about where their food comes from; they go to the store and buy it without a real grasp of what is required to produce that food.”

Water is America’s lifeblood, and right now, there’s less of it. Combine the added pressures of an ongoing drought along with a rapidly growing urban population, and you’ve got the elements of a perfect storm.

Because of the severity of the drought, California Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., recently mandated that urbanites curtail their water use by 25%, which could save nearly 500 billion gallons of water by February 2016. However, in California, 80% of the water used goes to agriculture, so it’s not surprising that Brown was criticized for a mandate that only applies to urban use. Brown was unmoved by the public outcry, stating in an interview, farmers and ranchers are “not watering their lawn or taking long showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America to a significant part of the world.”

Settrini’s ranch is located in the heart of the Salinas Valley, which has been called the “salad bowl of the world.” That stretch of the country is considered one of the most productive tracts of land in the world, producing more than 230 varieties of crops, ranging from strawberries and almonds to lettuce and beef. What’s more, not only is California the largest food-producing state, but if it were its own nation, California would rank fifth in the world. Yet in 2014, more than a half-million acres of farmland lay fallow in California, resulting in $1.5 billion of lost revenue. That number is expected to double in 2015. 

Chris Woodka, journalist for The Pueblo Chieftain, has reported on water issues in Colorado for the past 30 years. He says the issue of water rights is a constant battle between consumers and area producers.

“The big dilemma, in the state of Colorado, is the transfer of agricultural water rights to cities,” he said. “Cities are growing, but there is no new water. What it boils down to is cities need new water and are willing to pay top dollar for it. The concept of ‘buy and dry’ is a common tactic where cities buy the farm’s water rights and dry it up for their own use. Cities buy water well in advance of when they need it, and lease it back to farmers. So, basically, the farmer becomes a tenant, but no longer owns the water that’s on his ground.”

It begs the question, why would farmers be willing to part with their precious water source? According to Woodka, it all comes down to economics.

“When given the choice, most farmers would prefer to use the water themselves to grow a profitable crop,” said Woodka. “However, the lure of selling water rights outright is that they no longer have the risk of not getting a crop at all. The real trouble is when the aging farmer is wanting to retire and wants to get top dollar for his water rights; usually the cities win out over the neighbors in how much they are able to pay.”

In his reporting, Woodka is often asked about water waste. But he thinks what is considered to be a wasteful use of water is a matter of perspective.

“Water waste can be interpreted very differently, depending on whom you ask,” said Woodka. “I like my nice green lawn in the suburbs, and some would say that’s a waste of water. For someone living on the Western slope, green lawns aren’t a necessity but having running creeks for kayaking and outdoor recreation are important. It all depends on how you use the water and what you deem is a ‘good’ use of that water.”

Since agriculture is the biggest consumer of water, many are quick to point fingers at farmers and ranchers as the biggest culprits of water waste.

“Consumers need to understand that it’s not about how much water is used in agriculture; what’s more critical is that water needs to be used at the right place at the right time,” said Woodka. “My reporting career in the last decade has focused on how what you do with water in one place impacts the water supply in another place. I would encourage folks not to blindly follow the figures of water use tossed around by the media. Without a doubt, educating the public about the benefits of agriculture’s use of water is going to be a big challenge for farmers and ranchers.”

According to a study conducted by the University of California-Davis, it takes 440 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. From my viewpoint, I imagine many consumers hear this figure and picture cattle guzzling gallons of water in a single gulp; however, the amount of water consumed by cattle in production of that pound of beef only makes up 1% of that figure. Instead, the estimated number of gallons needed to produce a pound of beef also takes into consideration the water used to irrigate pastureland, to grow the crops the cattle are fed, to process the beef, to cool the beef in grocery stores, and even the water measured as food waste.

Kim Stackhouse, PhD, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association director of sustainability research, says beef production today uses fewer natural resources, including water, than ever before. In fact, the beef community recently conducted the largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment of any food and found that from 2005 to 2011, the beef industry achieved a 3% reduction in water use. The assessment also revealed that beef made great strides in several environmental areas including a 10% improvement in water quality, 7% reduction in landfill contributions, 2% reduction in resource consumption and energy use, and 2% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Agricultural use of water and other natural resources provide the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and renewable energy to sustain our lives,” said Stackhouse. “Water is a precious resource valued by the farmers and ranchers who raise your food. While everyone else seems to be waking up to the water issue due to dire predictions in the media and restrictions imposed by the Governor of California, farmers and ranchers have been feeling the impact of the drought for the past four years. Producers have already had to make tough decisions to reduce herd sizes, tear up orchards, and take other extreme measures due to restrictions on water usage.”

Although the nation’s cowherd is the smallest it’s been since the 1950s, today’s beef producers are raising more beef per animal than ever before, said Stackhouse.

“It’s important to remember that water ‘used’ doesn’t mean that the water is gone forever,” said Stackhouse. “Much of the water used in agriculture can be re-used. For example, when crops are irrigated, that water is captured and recovered by aquifers, wildlife, wetlands, and flows downstream into natural ecosystems to be used again.” 

While many are quick to give up their beloved cheeseburger in an effort to conserve water, here are a few numbers for reference from Steve Kay, editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly. In a recent article for BEEF magazine, Kay writes, “Activities such as taking a bath require up to 70 gallons of water. A five-minute shower uses 10 to 25 gallons. A running toilet can waste up to 200 gallons of water daily. More than 713 gallons of water go into the production of one cotton t-shirt. The New York City water supply system leaks 36 million gallons per day. It takes 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car. At one drip per second, a faucet can leak 3,000 gallons per year.”

“Activists try to use the numbers against us to say ‘eat this, not that,’” said Williams. “Every segment of agriculture is so intertwined and dependent on each other. We are all in this together. The finger-pointing game that is going on in California is not constructive. Debating how much water agriculture uses is a complete waste of time and energy. The issue is the drought. We can always work to reduce our water use — whether producers or consumers. But at the end of the day, consumers need to eat, so agricultural use of water is a necessity.”
Don Ament, a rancher and former Colorado Secretary of Agriculture, credits agriculture for making great improvements in efficiently using natural resources to produce food.
“When consumers hear that agriculture uses 80-85% of water, folks start getting pretty concerned,” said Ament. “Agriculture has made tremendous strides in our efficiency. One way we have done this is by how we are applying water to crops, such as using center pivots with low-pressure drop nozzles. Genetically modified organisms (GMOS)—for how much they get criticized in the media—have actually helped tremendously as we’ve been able to develop seeds that are drought tolerant and weed resistant. In my view, agriculture is doing everything within its power to be better; profit is a great motivator for being more efficient.”
Ament offered one solution—albeit expensive—for when rain is abundant: improving water storage. He encourages consumers to support water projects in their local areas and be wary of ballot initiatives that might take water resources away from agriculture.
“Ultimately, Mother Nature gives us moisture in abundance at times and not so much at other times,” he said. “We need to be smarter about storing water when we have it, and we need to store it in a way that reduces evaporation. I don’t think we have a water waste issue; we have a water storage issue.”

Unfortunately, water projects take a lot of time, money, and regulatory hoops to jump through. For example, Ament says several water projects in Colorado have been decades in the making.

Aments says a more immediate way to conserve water is to prioritize use, and he credits consumer efforts to reduce use. For example, the city of Denver has reduced water consumption per capita by 20% in the last 10-15 years, thanks to conservation campaigns. Yet, when it comes to consumers consciously trying to reduce water consumption through food choices, it’s not so simple. 

“Americans need to understand that water and food are tied together,” said Ament. “Our quality of life is based on our ability to eat. Today, we can eat for less than 7% of our disposable income. How do you get a better deal than that? Water and food are virtually one and the same. Without water, there’s no food. If you want to continue to eat well and eat affordably, water is a big piece of the puzzle.”

While Settrini continues to make the most of this drought situation and keep her ranch afloat, as consumers, we can continue to eat burgers without feeling guilty. Beef cattle are an important part of the water lifecycle. Be a savvy consumer and don’t fall victim to the numbers game. Every drop of water counts, but pointing fingers doesn’t conserve that water we all so desperately need. 

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