Spatial Variability and Uncertainty of Water Use Impacts from U.S. Feed and Milk Production

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This paper addresses water use impacts of agriculture, developing a spatially explicit approach tracing the location of water use and water scarcity related to feed production, transport, and livestock, tracking uncertainties and illustrating the approach with a case study on dairy production in the United States. This approach was developed as a step to bring spatially variable production and impacts into a process-based life cycle assessment (LCA) context. As water resources and demands are spatially variable, it is critical to take into account the location of activities to properly understand the impacts of water use, accounting for each of the main feeds for milk production. At the crop production level, the example of corn grain shows that 59% of water stress associated with corn grain production in the United States is located in Nebraska, a state with moderate water stress and moderate corn production (11%). At the level of milk production, four watersheds account for 78% of the national water stress impact, as these areas have high milk production and relatively high water stress; it is the production of local silage and hay crops that drives water consumption in these areas. By considering uncertainty in both inventory data and impact characterization factors, we demonstrate that spatial variability may be larger than uncertainty, and that not systematically accounting for the two can lead to artificially high uncertainty. Using a nonspatial approach in a spatially variable setting can result in a significant underestimation or overestimation of water impacts. The approach demonstrated here could be applied to other spatially variable processes.

Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Environmental Science and Technology
Date Published: 
January 9, 2017
Full Citation: 
Henderson, Andrew D., Anne C. Asselin-Balencon, Martin Heller, Lindsay Lessard, Samuel Vionnet, Olivier Jolliet. (2017) “Spatial Variability and Uncertainty of Water Use Impacts from U.S. Feed and Milk Production.” Environmental Science and Technology 51(4): 2382-2391.
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