Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production


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.

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Fig. 1: Water availability and use in the Colorado River basin.
Fig. 2: Depletion of river flow across the US during summer months.
Fig. 3: Estimated local eradication of fish species from sub-watersheds due to summer flow depletion in the US.
Fig. 4: Consumption of irrigation water sourced from western US rivers and used in producing cattle-feed crops and beef.
Fig. 5: Depletion of the Colorado River along its length in summer.

Data availability

All datasets used in this study are publicly available or available upon request from the authors.

Code availability

All computer code used in conducting the analyses summarized in this paper is available upon request from the authors.


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We dedicate this Article to our esteemed colleague and co-author Arjen Hoekstra, who passed away before this Article could be published. Research support provided by the FEWSION project founded in 2016 by a grant from the INFEWS programme, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture, grant ACI-1639529. The findings and conclusions in this publication are those of the authors and should not be construed to represent any official US Department of Agriculture or US Government determination or policy nor of the other funding entities. K.F.D. was also supported by Columbia University’s Data Science Institute and the Earth Institute.

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B.D.R. and B.L.R. provided conceptual design. B.D.R. coordinated individual contributions and wrote the paper. D.B. performed spatial analysis and mapping. P.C. performed hydrologic modelling and interpretation of findings. K.F.D. performed data processing for agricultural water use estimates and virtual water transfer modelling and coordinated input datasets for hydrologic modelling. M.M.M. and A.Y.H. provided agricultural water use estimates. P.D. and T.L. conducted economic assessment of fallowing. R.M. conducted ecological impact analysis. R.R.R. conducted virtual water transfer modelling and provided water use estimates for mining. L.M. provided water use estimates for domestic, commercial, industrial and livestock. T.J.T. provided water use estimates for thermoelectric generation. D.B. contributed spatial analysis and geographic information system mapping. All authors contributed comments and edits to finalize the paper.

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Correspondence to Brian D. Richter.

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Supplementary methods and results, Tables 1–3 and Figs. 1–5.

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Richter, B.D., Bartak, D., Caldwell, P. et al. Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production. Nat Sustain 3, 319–328 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0483-z

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