This post was first published on EDF’s Growing Returns blog.
Finger-pointing tends to sharpen during times of crisis.
Exhibit A: California, now entering its fourth year of drought.
If you’ve followed media coverage of the drought lately – which has spiraled to new heights since Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first mandatory cuts in urban water use last week – you’ve probably heard that agriculture was “spared” the knife.
An interview with Gov. Brown on PBS Newshour perfectly encapsulates the debate of the past week:
“Well, Governor, encouraging people to decrease watering their lawns seems like literally a drop in the bucket, when 80 percent of the water…is from the agriculture sector,” the reporter starts out. “We know that it costs an enormous amount of water to have a single almond to eat…Is it time for us to start zeroing in on the largest customers or users of water?”
While it’s true that agriculture is California’s biggest water user, and that some crops require more water than others, it’s unfair and inaccurate to suggest, first, that agriculture was passed over, and second, that a small nut is primarily to blame for sucking the state dry. It’s more complicated than that.
Farmers on the front line
Until now, agriculture has borne the brunt of California’s drought.
Most farmers – along with two-thirds of California’s population – receive water allocations from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, a complex, interconnected system of reservoirs, aqueducts, and pumping plants that deliver water, including melted snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to all points south.
In 2014, those allocations dipped to near record lows – zero in some cases – due to paltry rainfall and snowpack. The diminished supplies cost farmers about $2.2 billion and eliminated more than 17,000 jobs. More than 500,000 acres of cropland were fallowed.
Look beyond the nut
Then there’s the nut. If anything has come to symbolize the drought in the past week, it’s the almond, which, as you may have heard, requires a gallon of water to grow.
But here’s the rub: People really like almonds, and California grows two-thirds of the world’s supply. Further, the state grows about half of the country’s fruits and vegetables, and almonds aren’t even the most water-intensive.
As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson aptly observed:
“Pointing the blame at any single crop is just too reductive. When dealing with a complex system like California’s water cycle, you have to think holistically if you hope to make positive change. While the system is complex, there’s something very simple driving California’s water system off the rails: stupid laws.”
Improve the market
He’s absolutely correct. We need to tease out the provisions that are clogging California’s water system and establish incentives that will allow the market to respond to scarcity – well before aquifers are drained and our life-sustaining ecosystems begin to gasp.
In the case of groundwater, for the water market to function optimally, communities will also need to get a better handle on the sustainable yield of their basins. This needs to begin now.
Inevitably, agriculture will need to do more to increase California’s resiliency to drought. Everyone will.
It’s time we put those pointing fingers to work on a more worthwhile task – rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on real solutions.
I agree....Let's at least look at dairy factory farms in California! Almonds take water to grow, but cows need at least 40 gallons of water each day. There are monster dairies in California sucking up water, not just to water bovine friends, but to grow GMO crops to feed them. Why is no one mentioning the real water drain?
In reply to I do not think the solution by Edwin
Agreed - the 2014 "landmark" groundwater legislation does not require regional groundwater sustainability until 2040.
We need it now!
This article could stand to be completed. If it were it would include some good research on the amount of water used to grow alfalfa in this parched state, something that is grown in many other parts of the country.
Agriculture needs to provide its own water. Frackers need to provide their own water.
Residents, citizens, resident aliens need water for their health and welfare.
Your statements about almonds and agriculture are misleading. Almonds can be grown elsewhere.
"Two-thirds of the country's fruits and vegetables"... We import as much as is grown in California! We can import more. We can grow more elsewhere. It sounds as if you are lobbying the public to help the problem continue? 80% of the water used is used by industry and agriculture.
The climate is semi-arid. When droughts strike they are severe in semi-arid climates. San Diego is bringing a desalination plant online at tremendous cost to the citizens that live there and other places in California. The customers of corporations making all of the products and using all of the water pay little or nothing for it, but demand service for their business interests.
Nonsense! Shift production, import more, plant a victory garden and eat real organic food grown locally! No trucking, no pesticides or herbicides and no ripening on the truck! Your choices abound when you do it yourself or pay someone to custom raise your food!
I do not think the solution is to reduce water consumption to consumers, that could aggravate the situation.
EdwinApril 14, 2015 at 4:37 pm