How Colorado River Cuts Will Impact National Food Supply

Cuts to water allotments from the Colorado River may hamper one state's ability to produce its agricultural staples.

The U.S. government on Tuesday issued orders for states that receive water allotments from the Colorado River to cut back on consumption. Due to droughts and other factors exacerbated by climate change, the various reservoirs along the river that provide water to numerous states in the Western U.S. have begun to reach historic lows.

One state receiving a major cut in allotments is Arizona. This year, the state's river water supply was cut back by around 18 percent, with a further cut of 3 percent planned for 2023, according to reporting by the Associated Press (AP).

"Cities and farms across the region are anxiously awaiting official hydrology projections — estimates of future water levels in the river — that will determine the extent and scope of cuts to their water supply," the AP reported.

colorado river arizona supply cut
A "bathtub ring" is visible along the Lake Mead reservoir due to low water levels as seen from the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada and Arizona state border on July 19, 2021. Arizona is expected to shoulder major water supply cuts as the Colorado River experiences historically low levels. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

One industry expected to take a major hit due to Arizona's cutbacks is agriculture, which uses 74 percent of the state's water supply, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The number has previously reached as high as 90 percent.

Arizona's agricultural business generates billions of dollars in revenue, with a University of Arizona study finding that its various commodities brought in around $3.9 billion in 2020. A nearly one-quarter reduction in the water supply—which will be used for crops and livestock hydration—could cost the state millions in losses and reduce the supply of some of its key products nationwide.

"In 2020, Arizona generated around $3.9 billion in agricultural cash receipts with the highest valued commodities being dairy products, specifically milk, lettuce, and cattle and calves," the University of Arizona study said. "That same year, the value of Arizona's agricultural production and processing industries represented 1.7 percent of total state GDP."

Lettuce is, by a considerable margin, Arizona's most successful and plentiful crop, generating over $725 million in sales in 2020. Alongside California, the state helps to produce 90 percent of the lettuce consumed by the U.S. each year.

Arizona's agricultural sector also produces a considerable amount of cattle and related products. The state sold nearly $800 million worth of dairy products in 2020, along with nearly $675 million in cattle and calves for beef production. A reduction in water supply would almost certainly have an impact on the industries, as it takes roughly 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, according to nonprofit think tank Food Tank.

Newsweek reached out to the Arizona Department of Agriculture for comment.