The Biggest Threat to the Colorado River: Thirsty Corporations

New research traces the Colorado River crisis to climate change, a history of bad policy, and governments’ refusal to take on Big Ag’s thirstiest industries.


by Kat Ruane and Mia DiFelice

Over the past few years, the Colorado River has plummeted to crisis levels, setting off alarm bells for the 40 million people who depend on it for water. 

But recent proposals for cuts on water use have completely ignored a major driver of the crisis: Big Ag. Thirsty mega-dairy cows and cash crops are guzzling the Colorado River at a reckless rate. 

Bad policy and Big Ag’s reign over the Colorado threaten the future of the entire region, especially for those already vulnerable to climate change and water scarcity. To secure a livable future in the Basin, policymakers must completely rethink water use and rein in Big Ag’s water abuses.

Decades of Mismanagement Have Brought the Colorado River to Its Current Crisis

Water on the Colorado River has been tightly managed, going back a century to the passage of the Colorado River Compact. 

Under the Compact, the states split 15 million acre-feet* a year. The Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) get 7.5 million acre-feet, while the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) take what’s left. 

Additionally, the Basin is home to more than two dozen American Indian tribes, whose recognized rights make up about a quarter of the River’s flow.

However, the 1922 Compact and its allocations were based on the unusually wet conditions of the time. They didn’t account for the river’s usual flow, for our current climate change-fueled megadrought, or the region’s population boom.

What’s more, the water shortage threatens the vital hydropower produced in the river’s reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. If water levels sink much lower, they won’t be high enough to flow and generate electricity. This would take relatively cheap power off the table for millions in the region.

In June 2022, the federal government gave the Basin states an ultimatum: create a plan for water cuts, or it would write its own. 

This past May, Lower Basin states proposed to cut their water use by 13%. But this interim deal only amounts to a quarter of the cuts needed for Lake Mead and Lake Powell to recover. And states will still need to go back to the negotiating table before 2026.

Alfalfa and Mega-Dairies Monopolize the Colorado River

These state-level negotiations miss the mark entirely, as they ignore a key regional factor in the crisis: Big Ag. 

The Basin is dominated by agricultural industries that just don’t make sense in the desert. That’s part of the reason Basin states use way more irrigation water than other states across the country. (Arizona, for instance, uses over three times the national average.)

One major guzzler: livestock feed crops. These crops, including alfalfa, account for 55% of water use in the Basin. Our partner organization Food & Water Watch estimates that alfalfa in the Basin consumed 2.2 trillion gallons of water in 2022 alone. That’s enough to meet the indoor water needs of 40 million people for three and a half years.

Another major guzzler: mega-dairies, which confine 500 cows or more. Mega-dairy cows in the Basin number collectively in the millions, and together they need 218 million gallons of water every single day for washing and drinking.

Bad Policy Has Allowed Big Ag to Hijack the Colorado River

Adding Big Ag’s water abuses to climate change has created a vicious cycle. The worse the climate gets, the more water big farms need. And the more water those farms use, the less water is available for other uses — a problem that is, in turn, heightened by climate change-fueled drought.

So why are these thirsty industries so huge in this already dry region? Years of poor state-level water governance and federal policies that favor Big Dairy.

Like the rest of our food system, fewer, larger operations have come to dominate the dairy industry. Weak federal antitrust laws and lax enforcement have allowed rampant consolidation, while federal focus on export markets has squeezed farmers’ prices. To compete in global export markets and keep their livelihoods, farmers feel pressured to “get big or get out” — grow their herds or stop farming altogether.

Big Dairy depends on feed crops like alfalfa — and now, researchers can trace 75% of Lake Mead’s decline over the past two decades to irrigation for cattle feed.

But Big Ag’s greed is not the only culprit. It’s gotten a boost from the region’s inflexible and outdated regime of water rights. 

In the current system, the oldest rights are practically untouchable. So despite record droughts, senior water rights holders like those in Southern California still get the same allocations. As a result, alfalfa production levels have changed little in California during the 2011-2017 drought, with some regions actually producing more.

The Bureau of Reclamation is developing new guidelines for water use on the Colorado River. Join us in demanding that it put families before Big Ag.

The Colorado River Crisis Hits Hardest for Those Excluded From Negotiations

While corporations can turn scarce water into cash crops, many people can’t even access the water that’s rightfully theirs. 

Native Americans have lived in the Basin since before the U.S. government existed and have senior water rights over states. Yet, allocation discussions — from the original 100-year-old Compact to today — have excluded them.

The result: a patchwork of realized and unrealized water rights. Many tribes’ lack of infrastructure prevents communities from actually using the water they have rights to, while legal battles have tied up some rights in court.

For instance, the Colorado River borders more than 100 miles of Hualapai land. But the Tribe’s rights to the river are pending in Congress, and it’s currently barred from drawing a single drop.

We Need to Completely Overhaul Water Management on the Colorado River

While some communities can’t even get drinking water, industrial farms are guzzling with impunity. We’ve known for decades that the arid West can’t sustain Big Ag. Our governments need to act like it. Continuing down this path will only lead to harm for communities and ecosystems already struggling to survive in a hotter, drier climate.

Now, Basin states and the federal government are considering allocations beyond 2026. State leaders must seize this opportunity and radically rethink their water use.

* An acre-foot is a measurement of water equal to the amount it would take to cover an acre of land with water a foot deep. One acre-foot is about 325,851 gallons.