Are Beef Herds Drinking All the Water in California?

Elsie and Elmer Are Thirsty: 5,215 Gallons of Water Put One LB of Beef on the Table

By Don's Early Light, Donald J. Brix, Ph.D.

That’s right.  The thirst of a typical cow or steer isn’t slaked by our measly eight glasses a day.  No, it’s more like twenty, and gallons not glasses. I’ve seen estimates as high as thirty gallons daily  for a big animal on a hot day. And these four-legged sponges don’t stop there.

I’m not gonna take the time to look up the info on how much water is used to irrigate the feed crops that they eat. Trust me, it’s a lot. The University of California Agricultural Extension group did the numbers at some point past and reported that, all told, 5,214 gallons of water are required to get a pound of beef to the dinner plate.  The day some erstwhile wordsmith hatched the word profligate s/he must have had excess of this magnitude in mind.  

Just this past week California’s Governor Brown announced “unprecedented restrictions” to be imposed as the State continues to suffer prolonged drought. The rules will especially target the “aesthetic” use of water.  Golf courses, parks, and other water-hungry expanses are at risk to be increasingly brown as the warm season waxes on. The Governor is a bright guy. He’s probably as familiar as you and I are with the information about cows and water.  If he could persuade a single Golden State denizen to jettison his or her beef eatin’ ways; let’s see 5,214 gallons to produce a pound of beef, multiplied by an American beef eater’s estimated 65 pounds yearly beef consumption = a staggering 338,910 gallons of water used.  To borrow a turn of a phrase from the late Senator Everett Dirksen, 338 thousand here, 338 thousand there, pretty soon you’re talkin’ about some serious water. You can do the arithmetic. If the answer you get is less than lots of billions, check your work ‘cause it’s wrong. 



I keep urging you to buy her book, but if I don’t stop quoting her you’ll have no reason to do it.  What the heck, here’s another.

“It's just the way things are. Take a moment to consider this statement. Really think about it. We send one species to the butcher and give our love and kindness to another apparently for no reason other than because it's the way things are. When our attitudes and behaviors towards animals are so inconsistent, and this inconsistency is so unexamined, we can safely say we have been fed absurdities. It is absurd that we eat pigs and love dogs and don't even know why. Many of us spend long minutes in the aisle of the drugstore mulling over what toothpaste to buy. Yet most of don't spend any time at all thinking about what species of animal we eat and why. Our choices as consumers drive an industry that kills ten billion animals per year in the United States alone. If we choose to support this industry and the best reason we can come up with is because it's the way things are, clearly something is amiss. What could cause an entire society of people to check their thinking caps at the door--and to not even realize they're doing so? Though this question is quite complex, the answer is quite simple: carnism.”

― Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism



The standard diet of a person in the United States requires 4,200 gallons of water per day (for animals’ drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing, washing, cooking, etc.). A person on a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons a day.

—Richard H. Schwartz in Judaism and Vegetarianism

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