Over the past 30 years, water-saving technology and conservation habits as well as an economy geared more toward less water-intensive services have kept water consumption steady in the U.S.; due to climate-induced droughts and increasing water use, however, watersheds have faced increasing stress. Low water levels have endangered hundreds of species of plants and animals and caused billions in agricultural losses in recent years.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability, Darden Professor Peter Debaere and an interdisciplinary team of researchers endeavored to identify for the first time precisely where water stress was the greatest and why.

The Biggest Culprit

A taste for beef may be the biggest factor in water scarcity in the United States especially along the Colorado River, according to the analysis.

“If we want to fight water stress, it’s not going to be by brushing our teeth a little quicker or spending five minutes less in the shower, as important as those things are,” he says. “It’s really coming very much from food production.” For years, Debaere has been focusing on the economics of water production and scarcity, and teaches an elective for MBA students about the topic at UVA Darden School of Business.

Through a measure the researchers term the Water Supply Stress Index, the scholars calculated the amount of water depletion in watersheds across the country, comparing it to the water flow in rivers to determine which watersheds were being depleted. They found that water scarcity in the U.S. is not evenly spread around the country, but is concentrated in states west of the Mississippi.

For the Colorado River Basin, for example, the rate of water consumption has been higher than the amount of available water in 75 percent of years between 2000 and 2015. “That’s only possible because you are depleting the reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” Debaere says. In analyzing the sources of this depletion, he and his fellow researchers identified the greatest source as cattle-feed crops, such as alfalfa and grass hay. They found that nationally, those crops account for 23 percent of all water consumption, including 32 percent of consumption in Western states and a whopping 55 percent in the Colorado River Basin.

“You need irrigation to grow all of these crops,” Debaere says. “People don’t realize how much water goes into them.” In an attempt to make that water usage more tangible, the research traces the path of the beef produced through river-irrigated feed crops. Much of it, not surprisingly, flows to large urban areas, including Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle. “If you can link water usage to specific products, it makes it more tangible to people,” Debaere notes.

The Underlying Problem and a Potential Solution

The problem with water scarcity, however, isn’t necessarily just America’s love affair with hamburgers; it’s the places we are choosing to grow the crops needed to feed cows. Right now, it may be cheaper for farmers to grow crops out West, closer to the source of cattle production — but that’s only because the costs of water depletion aren’t being taken into account.

“The question, in a way, is whether you are paying the right price for this scarce water resource,” Debaere says. That’s not an easy question to answer, however. Charging a higher price for water or limiting crop production quickly raises tensions between city-dwellers and farmers about who owns the right to use water resources. “Some might say, ‘Yes, there’s water scarcity, but why should farmers have to take the full brunt of that adjustment?’”

Possible solutions, the paper proposes, may be found in fallowing programs, whereby farmers are paid to keep a certain percentage of their land unused in a given year, reducing the stress placed on the overall water supply while at the same time compensating farmers for their losses. By properly pricing water, such a program could make it more economically feasible to grow cattle-feed crops in watersheds in the Eastern U.S. or international markets where water is more plentiful.

“Oftentimes, when you talk about water scarcity, people’s first response is ‘How can we get more water,’” Debaere says. “Whereas economists typically ask the question, ‘Are you actually using water for the stuff you should be using it for in that spot?”

Debaere hopes that the paper can help spur a conversation about the actual price we are paying for water to produce crops in water-stressed areas, as well as create more political will to consider programs like fallowing that would spread out that cost more equally between cities and rural areas.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have, but it’s one we must have as climate change continues to negatively impact our waterways,” Debaere says. “There will be no solution for the water crisis as long as we don’t price water properly, which at the same time, requires across the United States an understanding of what the sustainable levels of water use are.”

Peter Debaere co-authored “Water Scarcity and Fish Imperilment Driven by Beef Production,” which appeared in Nature Sustainability.


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About the Expert

Peter Debaere

Tipton R. Snavely Professor of Business Administration

Debaere is a leading international economist, with a focus on international trade, multinationals and trade policy. His work addresses fundamental questions about the extent to which trade theories can explain actual international trade patterns. He has also examined the specific impact of trade policies on trade flows and international prices, as well as on the operations of multinational corporations. In recent years, Debaere has also been researching the economics of water.

B.A., KUL, Belgium; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor