Western Water and Livestock Production: A Destructive Past and Unsustainable Future — University of Denver Water Law Review

From the University of Denver Water Law Review (Matthew Kilby):

This panel discussed the destructive impacts of large-scale cattle operations on landscapes and ecosystems. The panel focused on cattle grazing and industrial farming as some of the lead causes of environmental destruction in the American West.

Josh Osher spoke about the widespread damages caused by cattle grazing. Not only does cattle grazing affect more than two hundred million acres of land in the American West, but it has also contributed to the damage of eighty percent of streams and riparian areas in the region, which he described as “corridors for plant and animal species.” One way cattle destroy riparian areas is through “step-down,” which occurs when cattle walk over streams and incise stream or riverbanks. When cattle destroy banks, water channels become flat, which degrades instream flows and alters stream morphology. This, along with a reduction in water quality, can fundamentally change landscapes and eliminate local plant and animal species. Osher contended that the only way to prevent further degradation of western ecosystems through cattle grazing is to remove the cattle from the land. Once cattle are removed, he argued, lands have shown a surprising resilience and ability to rebound from substantial degradation.

George Wuerthner discussed how legislators and government agencies have failed to combat the cattle industry. Wuerthner highlighted this failure by exploring the Clean Water Act’s exception that allows industrial agricultural producers to operate without obtaining discharge permits, despite the fact that a single cow can produce up to one hundred pounds of feces in one day. He noted that cattle in Montana produce waste equivalent to a human population of 100 million. In addition to allowing the cattle industry to thrive without necessary environmental regulations, Wuerthner also discussed the disproportionate access the industry has to water. In Nevada for example, the cattle industry only provides some 25,000 jobs but it may take up to eighty-five percent of the state’s water. Wuerthner concluded his segment by imploring the attendees to fight this inequity by eating more fruits and vegetables.

Last, Julia DeGraw presented on how important it is for society to shift how we use water. To highlight this importance, DeGraw explored two mega-dairy farms, one in operation and the other slated for future operation, near Boardman, Oregon. The groundwater underneath Boardman has long been in decline, yet the combined dairy farms could withdraw an estimated 1.4 million gallons of water a day to support 100,000 cattle. This would not only severely affect local hydrologic conditions, but would also reduce local air and water quality. The cost of beef does not internalize its environmental destruction. To solve this conundrum, DeGraw, like Wuerthner, called on attendees to change their diet to help dismantle the industrial cattle industry.

4 thoughts on “Western Water and Livestock Production: A Destructive Past and Unsustainable Future — University of Denver Water Law Review

  1. This is a very misleading article not based upon any factual evidence of environmental degradation. There is a lot of research from land grant universities throughout the US that shows a great copacetic relationship between cattle and the open range environment.

    If you need help with getting a similar story with factual evidence let me know. To start with the Range Beef Cow symposium starts today in Cheyenne and will discuss the other side of the story.

    Zach Thode 970-744-1444

  2. Wow, many jumped to conclusions from people who seem to have a very rudimentary knowledge of the industry! There are thousands of sustainable grazing operations throughout the U.S. that actually use ruminants to improve rangeland and in turn improve riparian areas. The movement is decades old and was spearheaded by Allen Savory with a local example found in the work of the Quivira Coalition based in Santa Fe. Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota illustrates another example of using grazers to incorporate nutrients and carbon into agricultural soils. Granted, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) for both dairy and beef production are some of the worst polluters on earth, but these products do not need to be produced this way. Grass fat beef and dairy is an emerging trend given that it will most likely raise prices and drive demand downward. Also, there are still some very poor grazing managers out there who have survived the ups and downs of the cattle industry, but this could be resolved with education and increased profitability for producers willing to change old practices and put up some fence.

    I can think of nothing more destructive to the soil, water, and air quality than plowing up a field to grow vegetables. Yet, some fantasy sustainable vegetable production seems to be the “go to” argument for lessening human impact. Instead of pointing fingers at perceived problems, do your homework and then get to work making real change! I for one am tired of the same old polarizing arguments. Grazers and improved farming practices are a key partnership in a truly sustainable agricultural future. Onward and upward.

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