How Growers Gamed California's Drought

Consuming 80 percent of California's developed water but accounting for only 2 percent of the state's GDP, agriculture thrives while everyone else is parched.

Agriculture is the heart of California's worsening water crisis, and the stakes extend far beyond the state's borders. Not only is California the world's eighth largest economy, it is an agricultural superpower. It produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States -- and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops -- while exporting vast amounts to China and other overseas customers.

But agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California's developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state's gross domestic product. Most crops and livestock are produced in the Central Valley, which is, geologically speaking, a desert. The soil is very fertile but crops there can thrive only if massive amounts of irrigation water are applied.

Although no secret, agriculture's 80 percent share of state water use is rarely mentioned in media discussions of California's drought. Instead, news coverage concentrates on the drought's implications for people in cities and suburbs, which is where most journalists and their audiences live. Thus recent headlines warned that state regulators have ordered restaurants to serve water only if customers explicitly request it and directed homeowners to water lawns no more than twice a week. The San Jose Mercury News pointed out that these restrictions carry no enforcement mechanisms, but what makes them a sideshow is simple math: During a historic drought, surely the sector that's responsible for 80 percent of water consumption -- agriculture -- should be the main focus of public attention and policy.

The other great unmentionable of California's water crisis is that water is still priced more cheaply than it should be, which encourages over-consumption. "Water in California is still relatively inexpensive," Heather Cooley, director of the water program at the world-renowned Pacific Institute in Oakland, told The Daily Beast.

One reason is that much of the state's water is provided by federal and state agencies at prices that taxpayers subsidize. A second factor that encourages waste is the "use it or lose it" feature in California's arcane system of water rights. Under current rules, if a property owner does not use all the water to which he is legally entitled, he relinquishes his future rights to the unused water, which may then get allocated to the next farmer in line.

If it makes you feel better about yourself, go ahead and let your toilet stink or take shorter showers, but don't pretend that will have any kind of measurable effect. It's nearly as pointless a placebo as separating your trash is. All aggregate personal use can't hope to even compare to what is done at industrial scales. Remember: the damage that BP did in the Gulf every five seconds completely obviated all the recycling you personally ever did in your life.

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10 Responses:

  1. Kirsten Bjorgan says:

    Bleak. Blech.

  2. Morrisa Sherman says:

    Yeah. Fracking in California uses and ruins a vast amount of water too. But don't be brushing your teeth with the water running...

  3. Dustin says:

    The BP oil spill didn't make more metal have to be mined or more trees have to be cut down. At most it obviated the plastic recycling, which wasn't very useful in the first place.

    • Ben says:

      A huge fucking oil rig sank which requires a lot of steel to replace, and I expect there were a lot of pulp-based products being used in the coastal cleanup efforts.

    • Eric says:

      Turning ore into aluminum takes a lot more energy than turning aluminum cans into aluminum. That energy is probably produced from burning fossil fuels. The additional energy consumption for processing raw materials instead of reprocessing previously finished materials is true of most metals and also of glass.

  4. David Konerding says:

    The central valley is not a geographical desert. Before it was heavily populated and the water was controlled, it was well-irrigated and naturally fertile with a growing season that covered the winter[1]/ It just wasn't capable of supporting the level of year-round agriculture it currently does. Then the lakes were dammed and drained, and the rivers were made to flow backwards via massive pumping[2].

    [1] http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/flashbks/muir/muirjan.htm
    [2] http://www.amazon.com/The-King-Of-California-American/dp/1586482815

  5. Laura Rubin says:

    I sort of wonder what that "% of GDP" was really like during the dot-bomb and recent recession.

  6. Bryan Bell says:

    @Laura Rubin not much different, no more than 3.5%. Ag has been a very small percentage of california's gdp for a long time (since the 40's).

  7. just b says:

    Thank you.

    (I had a similar conversation a few days ago: contemplating and explaining 'our' water situation to my mom)

  8. Kyle Huff says:

    But isn't this exactly the sort of pointless hairshirt gestures Californians adore?