Recent findings, published in Nature Sustainability in March, strengthen the environmental arguments for going vegan while rewriting the familiar narrative that almonds and other high-value tree crops are the top hogs of Central Valley water resources. The study’s authors, led by Brian Richter of Virginia-based Sustainable Waters, focused on the arid West and found that irrigated crops like alfalfa and hay, more than any others, are drying out rivers. The reduced flows are pushing dozens of fish species toward extinction. “We estimate that 60 fish species in the western US are at elevated risk of imperilment or extinction due to flow depletion, and that 53 (88%) of these are primarily due to irrigation of cattle-feed crops,” the scientists wrote in their paper. The study focused on the Colorado River basin but included analyses of the Central Valley. Here, almond production has been criticized as an environmentally harmful industry that is damaging the Delta ecosystem, its namesake smelt, Chinook salmon, and other fish species. The new findings show that cattle feed crops use even more water than the lucrative nuts. The authors propose a system of “voluntary, rotational fallowing of irrigated cattle-feed crops”—that is, paying farmers to grow nothing—to lessen environmental strains.

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Photo: Alastair Bland
 

More than half the water diverted from Central Valley rivers is used to irrigate cattle-feed crops, implicating beef and dairy as top drivers of recent fish declines.

Recent findings, published in Nature Sustainability in March, strengthen the environmental arguments for going vegan while rewriting the familiar narrative that almonds and other high-value tree crops are the top hogs of Central Valley water resources. The study’s authors, led by Brian Richter of Virginia-based Sustainable Waters, focused on the arid West and found that irrigated crops like alfalfa and hay, more than any others, are drying out rivers. The reduced flows are pushing dozens of fish species toward extinction. “We estimate that 60 fish species in the western US are at elevated risk of imperilment or extinction due to flow depletion, and that 53 (88%) of these are primarily due to irrigation of cattle-feed crops,” the scientists wrote in their paper. The study focused on the Colorado River basin but included analyses of the Central Valley. Here, almond production has been criticized as an environmentally harmful industry that is damaging the Delta ecosystem, its namesake smelt, Chinook salmon, and other fish species. The new findings show that cattle feed crops use even more water than the lucrative nuts. The authors propose a system of “voluntary, rotational fallowing of irrigated cattle-feed crops”—that is, paying farmers to grow nothing—to lessen environmental strains.

About the author

A native to San Francisco, Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist who writes about water policy in California, rivers and salmon, marine conservation and climate change. His work has appeared at NPR.org, Smithsonian.com, Yale Environment 360 and News Deeply, among many other outlets. When he isn't writing, Alastair is likely riding his bicycle uphill as fast as he can.

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