Op-ed: Cows in China Are Draining California’s Water Supply

This California winter was wildly wet, and the federal drought monitor is less red than it’s been in years. The state seems as though it may never want for water again. But California’s water crisis is a stick in the mud that shows no sign of budging. Our state’s principal water source, the Colorado River, remains dangerously low. Organizations that closely monitor the river’s levels caution that the annual demand for and “legal” claim to Colorado River water is 1.4 trillion gallons more than exists—a shortfall of water for more than 20 million people a year. 

In a game of chicken—actually, make that cow—California has steadfastly refused to join Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada in a multi-state agreement to cut water consumption from the Colorado River, claiming that the agreement disproportionately impacts our state. This impasse has shifted the matter of preserving the water source that around 36 million people rely on to the federal government. The question is this: Is the Biden administration ready to tackle factory farming?    

State governments—even California’s—are clearly not. Elected officials who serve populations reliant on the river have put forth numerous policy “solutions,” ranging from decreasing the size of new residential swimming pools to requiring higher-efficiency plumbing in commercial construction projects. One suggestion is even to pump water from the Mississippi River to the parched Western states. These proposals are little more than performative, considering the main culprit of water consumption is glaringly absent from negotiations: industrial animal agriculture.

Around 79% of water in the Colorado River Basin is consumed for irrigation of crops, and 53% of these crops are grass hay and haylage, such as alfalfa—also known as feed crops for farmed animals. Here in California, the Imperial Valley accounts for over 58% of water consumption. That’s more water than Arizona and Nevada combined consumed in 2022. This is because the Imperial Valley leads California—the world, in fact—in alfalfa production. 

According to the USDA, California produced over 10.5 million tons of feed crops in 2021 alone, at a value of almost $223 billion. That’s more than enough money to purchase every team in the NFLtwice. Most of this hay is shipped overseas, increasingly to China, to feed farmed animals. In other words, Californians and our neighbors who rely on the Colorado River Basin are losing our water source to cows, pigs, and other animals raised for meat in China. 

Policymakers must face the cow in the room: Unless we rethink and reform our food system, we will run out of water. California is well-positioned to be a leader in these reforms. Our state is at the forefront of plant-based food tech; an estimated 445 plant-based food tech startups are headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area alone. Simply shifting subsidies and incentives toward plant-based farming and innovation could have a significant positive impact on water consumption. 

American farmers, the vast majority of whom have lost their autonomy to exploitative, predatory contracts with large meat companies, are also thirsty for change. With 2023 U.S. Farm Bill negotiations underway, progressive bills, such as the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act and the Farm System Reform Act, have the support of a large coalition of family farm groups, consumer protection groups, food workers unions, regenerative agriculture groups, and—of course—animal protection groups. And projects like Transfarmation, which equips factory farmers with the tools they need to transition their existing CAFOs to specialty-crop growing operations, such as mushroom or hemp production, prove that alternatives to our unsustainable food and agriculture system are available. 

We cannot wait on the federal government to dictate water reduction in the West or to pass the Farm Bill. The Colorado River is running out of time. As Californians, we must urge our elected officials to put forth meaningful plans for change. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope four months of rain and snow will quench our thirst in the end. Bold reforms must center on phasing out industrial animal agriculture. Calculating evaporation rates is just kicking the can further down the road—a road that dead-ends with factory farming. 

AJ Albrecht leads Mercy For Animals’ work in the United States and Canada, overseeing the organization’s corporate engagement, government affairs, organizing, public engagement, and campaigns programs, in addition to the Transfarmation project.

Mercy For Animals is a leading international nonprofit working to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system. Active in Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and the United States, the organization has conducted more than 100 investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, influenced more than 500 corporate policies, and helped pass historic legislation to ban cages for farmed animals. Join us at MercyForAnimals.org.