Expert: The ‘silver bullet’ to the West’s water crisis lies not in Lake Mead but in what we feed our cattle

With water levels in Lake Mead dropping at an alarming rate, the western United States needs to look to other solutions to meet its water needs. That solution can be as simple as changing the way farmers fallow land, which can significantly reduce water usage while not seeing significant depreciation in economic activity, according to data scientist Benjamin Ruddell.

Ruddell is director of the NSF-funded FEWSION Project at Northern Arizona University, which uses comprehensive data mapping to monitor domestic supply chains for food, water and energy down to the county level. He argues that the United States use disproportionately large amounts of water to grow cattle-feed crops like alfalfa and grass hay; in the Colorado River Basin, which feeds into Lake Mead, cattle feeding uses almost three times as much water as does all the urban, industrial and electrical power purposes in the region.

Ruddell has co-authored two recent studies looking at how to reduce water consumption without decreasing economic activity: the March 2020 report in Nature Sustainability examines how farmers fallow farmland, and an August 2020 report in Environmental Research Letters, examines the dozens of ways individual industries and regions can increase their water efficiency.

Contact: Benjamin Ruddell, FEWSION director; professor and director, School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems: (928) 523-3124 or [email protected]


  • “Such a large fraction of our western water problems is linked to irrigation of cattle feed and such a large fraction of our western water problems could be fixed with a single prescription—fallowing. It’s rare that science clearly finds a silver bullet that solves such a big problem so well and so affordably.” 

About Dr. Ruddell

Data scientist Ben Ruddell is director of the FEWSION project at Northern Arizona University and a leading expert on supply chains. Ruddell directs the $4 million FEWSION project funded by the National Science Foundation. FEWSION has built the first complete empirical description (with correlating maps) of the U.S. food, energy and water system supply chain (the FEW Nexus) so every citizen and policymaker can see from where their food, water, fuel and a total of 46 different commodities come. He is also a professor and director of the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at NAU, known for its top scientific research programs. He has also led research projects funded by NASA, USDA, USGS, the Department of Defense, private foundations and several cities.