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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Los Angeles Times Article: One Less Burger per Week Could Help Rescue the Colorado River

I recently wrote an essay that the Los Angeles Times published in their "Opinion" section. The article tells the story of how I quit eating meat, and how that decision related to my work on the Colorado River at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Before I wrote the published article, I sent the Times a nerdier, wonkier version of the essay, which they didn't want to publish (too many numbers, they said). While I'm glad they encouraged me to write the more narrative piece they ended up publishing, I thought I'd also post the number-y version here. Read on nerds!


One Less Hamburger per Week Could Help Rescue the Colorado River

The Colorado River needs rescuing. According to a recent study, 2000 through 2021 was the driest 22-year period in the Colorado River Basin since Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans (800 CE). Despite a wet 2023 and a thus-far-average 2024, Lake Mead—the nation's largest reservoir and an important facility for storing Colorado River water—remains only 37% full.

In response to the dry conditions and low reservoirs, water agencies in the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada—for whom the Colorado River is a critical water supply—are temporarily taking less water from the river. Among other measures, in 2023, these agencies initiated voluntary conservation aimed at saving water through 2026.

While such short-term measures are critical, the long-term outlook for the river remains challenging. Since at least 2000, on average we’ve used more Colorado River water than the river naturally supplies, which accounts for the low reservoirs. Climate change has exacerbated this historical gap between use and supply.

To address the long-term problem, basin partners are scrambling to formulate a new set of rules for water use after 2026, when the current rules expire. To this end, on March 6th, the Lower Basin states submitted a proposal to cut their use from the river under most conditions by 17% of their legal entitlement—roughly equal to the historical gap between use and supply in the Lower Basin.

Implementing such cuts will be hard. Urban users will have to conserve more. However, according to a new study—the first comprehensive and up-to-date accounting of all water use in the Colorado River Basin—agriculture accounts for 74% of direct human use of river water. Thus, tearing out decorative lawns and implementing low-flow shower heads won't do the job alone. Crop irrigation will also have to drop.

Pervasive and thirsty cattle-feed crops like alfalfa come to mind. On average, they consume about a third of all human use of the river, and the majority of them go toward producing beef (as opposed to dairy)

On average, Americans eat almost 80 pounds of beef per year (four times the world average), or the equivalent of three half-pound hamburgers per week, each of which requires at least 900 gallons of water to make. What if we ate one less?

By my calculations, once we account for exports of beef-producing crops grown in the Colorado River watershed and the export of the beef itself produced on those crops, then our hamburgers drain a volume of water from the river just shy of the amount Arizona, California, and Nevada recently proposed to cut from their supplies after 2026.

Of course, reducing hamburger consumption wouldn’t necessarily translate directly to water savings on the Colorado River. A one-to-one correspondence between reduced beef consumption and water savings would only occur if the fields that once grew alfalfa and other cattle-feed crops remained fallow, which is unlikely. But even supposing farmers replaced their alfalfa with soybeans, which require less than half the irrigation of alfalfa, savings could still be almost half the cut proposed by the Lower Basin states.

It’s also possible that Colorado River farmers might just export more cattle-feed or beef to places like China, Canada, Japan, South Korea, or Mexico, which receive most of those exports currently. But surely not all the relevant farmers would become feed and beef exporters. 

Despite obstacles to quantifying the conservation precisely, if Americans cut their average consumption of Colorado-River-produced beef by a third, or one half-pound burger per week—especially those residing in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver metro areas, who eat the biggest share of that beef—it would surely make a significant dent in the conservation we need to realize post-2026, and would go a substantial way toward rescuing the river.

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