Colorado River Debate Misses Point: Stable Water Future Requires Confronting Abuses by Big Agribusiness and Fossil Fuel Industries

Published Feb 2, 2023


Climate and EnergyClean Water

This week the Colorado River Compact states missed an end-of-January deadline to develop an interstate water-use reduction plan. Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming proposed a framework on January 30, but California submitted its own separate plan. Without a consensus plan, the Bureau of Reclamation may impose its own solution. 

The Colorado River has been overallocated since the Colorado River Compact was first signed in 1922. Meanwhile, long-term regional drought has created crisis conditions that threaten the drinking water and power supply of millions. 

In response, Mitch Jones, Food & Water Watch’s managing director for policy and litigation, issued the following statement:

“In this moment of crisis on the Colorado River, we must start from scratch and fundamentally rethink the allocation and use of these water resources. This effort would be pointless without confronting head-on the key drivers of the crisis: the overuse and abuse of water by big agribusiness and fossil fuel corporations – the very same industries driving climate chaos in the first place.  

“All levels of government must work to protect the Colorado River water as a public trust resource and prioritize the wellbeing of the public before corporate profits. The Biden administration and governors of the seven compact states must muster the political will to stop the expansion of water-intensive crops like tree nuts and alfalfa, factory farms, fracking and fossil fuel extraction. They must halt these practices and chart a course to a more sustainable and resilient future, one that aligns with the reality of climate change and our precarious water future.”

Currently, 80% of the Colorado River’s water is put towards agriculture, and 80% of that supply is used for crops like alfalfa, which is largely used as feedstock for cattle.  The current framework to cut water uses, however, focuses on overall allocations and makes only a passing reference to the actual purpose that water is used: Each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water; there is precious little water left to waste.

New research released yesterday from Food & Water Watch found that in California large agribusinesses and oil and gas operators use massive and unsustainable amounts of water, permitted by ineffective regulations that put profits over people. Expanded nut crop acres required more than 520 billion gallons more water in 2021 than just four years prior. Alfalfa irrigation guzzles around 945 billion gallons of water per year, and corporate mega-dairies use more than 142 million gallons per day. Meanwhile, climate-polluting oil and gas operators devoured 3 billion gallons of freshwater between 2018 and 2021. 

In New Mexico, another state that draws on the Colorado River, mega dairies consume vast quantities of water while producing significant pollution. Food & Water Watch estimates that New Mexico’s mega-dairies together consume 10 million gallons of water each day — equal to 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools. At the same time, dairy cows produce more manure than any other livestock raised on factory farms. Together, the cows living on New Mexico’s mega-dairies produce enough manure to overflow nine Olympic swimming pools each day. That is 11 times as much sewage produced by the Albuquerque metropolitan area.

Contact: Seth Gladstone – [email protected]

Press Contact: Seth Gladstone [email protected]