Science & Technology



Where does all the Colorado River water go? A huge amount goes to grow cattle feed, new analysis shows.

Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post on

Published in Science & Technology News

Cattle feed, primarily.

Alfalfa and other hays consume 6.4 billion cubic meters of water a year — more than half the 12.4 billion cubic meters used annually for irrigated agriculture. The two crops outpace the 4.1 billion cubic meters used annually by cities, companies and industry.

Other major crops include cotton and wheat, though they make up a tiny fraction of water use.

In the Upper Basin, where Colorado is located, the divide is even sharper.

Ninety percent of water used in the basin’s irrigated agriculture goes to grow cow feed. The other major crops combined — corn, wheat, sugar beets, dry beans and oats — make up the remaining 10%.

Alfalfa and hay in the basin use an average 3.1 billion cubic meters of water a year — more than three times the 975 million cubic meters funneled to municipal, commercial and industrial uses. Alfalfa alone doubles those uses.


Farmers grow alfalfa because it can be mechanically harvested, reducing labor costs. It tolerates weather variability and can better survive drought conditions, the analysis states. It also helps balance nitrogen in soils and reduces the need for fertilizer.

Farmers grow what is in demand, Richter noted, and people want beef and dairy. The cattle sustained by the hay and alfalfa produce the cheese, butter, burgers and steaks consumed across the country.

“I don’t want the general public to respond to a study like this and start blaming people for using so much water,” he said. “To blame ranchers and farmers for growing so much alfalfa or other cattle feed crops is not what I want to see come of this.”

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