It has inspired bards, balladeers and artists of every ilk throughout the ages. It’s also inspired hard words, gunfire and more than a few court battles as the centerpiece in a fight that’s likely been going on for as long as humans have been around to fight with one another.
“Water is essential for life,” says Tom McDonald. “Therefore, our existence and economy will ultimately depend on having an adequate supply of water.”
The rub, says McDonald, vice president of environmental affairs with JBS Five Rivers Cattle and chairman of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, is that the amount and access to water varies greatly from state to state, and even from one part of a state to another. Some places have too much. In many places where cattle roam, however, there never seems to be enough.
“I think the important thing, whether we’re talking about surface water or groundwater aquifers, is that there are increasing and competing demands on water,” he says.
In short, if beef producers think water fights have been intense so far, “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” as the saying goes. Who uses the water, how they use it and how much they use has always been an issue; the challenge for agriculture will be justifying that use in an increasingly urbanized society.
“Water is in such short supply that it will always be a contentious issue,” says Ron Torell, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. Along with his wife, he owns Torell Livestock and Custom AI in Elko, Nev., and is a retired livestock specialist with Nevada Cooperative Extension. “Everybody is going to want to stick their fingers in the pot,” Torell adds, a pot that sits on an ever-hotter fire.
If there’s a way to bring water issues into crystal-clear focus, it’s drought. Cattle producers throughout the West and Southwest know this all too well. Nevada, the driest state in the nation, is in the middle of the worst drought Torell has experienced in his lifetime. “Our reservoirs are basically depleted,” he says, “and our groundwater situation, that’s always a battle.”
That’s because, he says, water in Nevada is over allocated based on current supply. “So we’ve got our well depths being drawn down and restrictions being put on farmers. There just isn’t enough water to go around.”
Agriculture, while one of the earliest water consumers, now has to jostle with many other competing interests. Mining, for one. Torell says miners at the large pits in the northeastern part of the state, who dig deep for gold, pump water out of the pits because they dig into the water table.
The mines must put the water that is not re-injected to beneficial use, he says, but there are many restrictions on how they do that. “Because they are pumping out so much water, we feel they are often depleting the springs and water holes on the rangeland. It’s like putting a straw in a Slurpee — you suck out the water, it dries up areas around the perimeter.”
And wildlife. “To complicate this whole issue is the potential listing [under the Endangered Species Act] of the sage grouse,” he says. “Here we are in the middle of trying to do habitat restoration and prevent the listing of the sage grouse — then we’ve got this huge water issue and drought, which is basically pulling things in the opposite direction.”
In nearby Washington state, the Department of Ecology this spring was asking irrigators to lease their water rights back to the state. With a warm winter and extremely low snowpack, the agency is concerned that streams could run dry this summer. The department is willing to pay ag water-rights holders to not divert water from the Upper Yakima Basin streams, keeping the water in the rivers to benefit fisheries and river flow.
Then there are people. “My crystal ball tells me that humans are always going to come first,” McDonald says. It’s a conflict that has been happening throughout the West with no solution in sight. “You’ve got your allocation and your limits, and if that doesn’t get you the amount of water you need, you’ve got to acquire more land and more water to satisfy your needs,” he says.
In Nevada, the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas is doing just that. It has purchased a number of ranches not for the grazing, but for the groundwater. “Their intention is to transfer the water, via pipeline, to Las Vegas to foster their growth and their water needs,” Torell says, adding that the effort has been tied up in the courts for 15 years. It’s safe to say that landowners in every western state can relate similar stories.
What's a cowboy to do?
While there are no quick, easy solutions, cattle producers — and all of agriculture — must continue to be major players as the water fights roll on. The first is to walk the walk when producers talk the talk about stewardship and environmental advocacy.
“Water is a finite and, in some cases, nonrenewable resource; and while some places in the world have more water than they want at times, other places will always be water-deficient, and good conservation measures are key,” McDonald says.
There are multiple levels and ways to conserve water, he says. “One is obvious: stop the leaks, shut off the hoses — what we normally consider conservation. The other is a little more difficult, and that has to do with recycling.”
McDonald believes this is an area where more research and development could yield great benefit. For the cattle business, the obvious place to start is with feedyard retention ponds. “The key there is, get a system or technology developed that would clean the water to the point where it would be acceptable for livestock use,” he says.
Conversations are already underway about cleaning up brackish water, he says, and desalinization has been investigated for years. The speed bump in that technology is the cost. “But as larger municipalities look more to desalinization, I have to believe the cost of that technology will come down, and we’ll find better and cheaper ways to accomplish that,” McDonald says.
And then there’s production technology. There, McDonald refers to the research Jude Capper and others have done that shows how using production technologies already in place reduces the environmental impact of U.S. beef production. Comparing 1977 with 2007, research shows U.S. beef production uses 30% fewer cattle, and requires 33% less land, 19% less feed and 12% less water.
And, adds Torell, make sure you know where you stand legally. “I know everybody who has ranches and water rights in Nevada are certainly much more educated about the legal side of water rights than they were 10 years ago,” he says. “Many of these people have gone to the courthouse and made sure their water rights are up to date and protected, and all the i’s dotted on the legal documents. I think that’s the main thing — make sure that whatever water rights you own have legal standing.”
Then, be willing to stand with other cattle producers. While challenges for beef producers to use water will come from all angles, McDonald and Torell believe that most of the challenges will come from the state and local levels. While ag organizations have long been involved in water issues, they say now is not the time to take boots off the accelerator.
“Ag needs to be at the table and take an active role in the way water is regulated, whether it’s at the local groundwater level or whether it’s at the state water commissions,” McDonald says. “The key there is for agriculture to be represented and have a seat at the table when those discussions are being held, and make sure our interests are protected.”
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