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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All datasets used in this study are publicly available or 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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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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