FALL 2002

 

FALL 2002 FULL ISSUE

THE BIG DRY: COW + DROUGHT = MISERY FOR RIVERS OF THE WEST

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN

All summer long, 2002 has been a year of epic drought in 11 western states. Rivers have been running at record lows. While media attention has focused on drought, news reports have missed one key fact: The millions of cows that run through the West's publicly owned deserts, mountains, canyons, plateaus and valleys have made effects of drought much worse.

"Some of the range is so dry there's not enough for a chigger co eat, much less a cow," says Denise Boggs of the Utah Environmental Congress. "I am no great fan of livestock but I don't think they should be tortured. That's how bad the shape is of some of this land they graze."  

Water is scarce from the inland Northwest to Texas, yet cattle pollute and dewater almost every river, lake, spring and wetlands. Centuries ago, the landscape could always score enough water to keep most rivers running all year long. Today livestock production has reshaped the water cycle. Cattle pound the soil hard - reducing its ability to store water when it rains, reducing its ability to give up water when it's hot. The result is rivers that run shallower and stagnant and dirty in summer, when there's any water in them at all. When the amount of water in a river goes down, the concentration of pollution goes up.

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Paul Koberstein