Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas
A small group of foreign-owned ranchers in the United States is taking advantage of the latest dry spell in the region to boost profits by cutting water usage at their ranches.
The practice is part of a larger effort by many U.S. farmers to get the better deal overseas by lowering their water consumption, particularly in drylands.
In other words, the trend, being led by the big players in the American cattle and agriculture industries, could help feed exports while simultaneously improving the water supplies for domestic use.
In the case of the U.S. cattle industry, it’s estimated that the water needs of the cattle-dependent Midwest could be cut by 80 percent by the end of this year. That’s what the water experts are predicting for the region, but the problem is getting much worse.
The region is in a severe drought now and may need a lot more water in dry years, but there’s no guarantee that it will get any more.
“The idea is to reduce global demand for water,” said Tom Risser, a Colorado State University professor who co-authored a recent study on the U.S. water resources.
“If the demand is there, then you don’t have to use as much to feed your cattle. The water for feeding them is being sent to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. But that comes at the expense of the groundwater that is being used to irrigate, and also the ground that we’re using for the grazing,” he said.
At least, that was the premise of the first U.S. effort to lower water consumption abroad.
A water shortage in New Zealand, for example, has caused the government to reduce its water use at a dairy industry’s farms.
In the end, the practice of exporting cattle, and its effects on water demand at home, came down to a choice: export the cattle at a higher price to feed them in foreign-held ranches, or lower the price by using less water.
But in the end, the practice of exporting cattle is not an option for all American farmers, and so they have to come down to the bargain to get a lower