Over the weekend California Governor Jerry Brown went on ABC News’ “This Week” program to defend his recently announced 25 percent cut to water usage across the state.
Reading recent articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, one might think the main issue is that Californians like their pretty lawns and shiny cars and don’t care about one another or the environment.
But lawns and car washes are not the real water issue facing California. Nor are the supposedly extra long showers that Brown suggested city dwellers take. In fact, human consumption of water in the state constitutes just 20% of water used. The rest is used for agriculture. And yet Brown’s cuts ask nothing of the agricultural industry.
When questioned about this, Brown explained that farms are “providing most of the fruit and vegetables of America”, as well as jobs for the state’s poorest members, who find themselves out of work and suffering.
Obviously, providing jobs for poor migrants is a good thing. And growing fruit and vegetables for the country is important; California is in fact responsible for 35 percent of the United States’ vegetables, and two-thirds of our fruit and nuts. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that agriculture contributes just 2 percent to the state’s gross domestic product.)
But what Brown fails to mention is that his protection extends to unnecessary crops which require startling amounts of water. In fact, ten percent of all water used in the entire state is dedicated to almond growing.
That's right: During the worst recorded drought in the state’s history, a full ten percent of our water is being used to grow a snack food.
That’s roughly the same amount of water used by all of the urban areas of California combined. The water needed each year for this salad and dessert topping is in fact three times that used by the entire city of Los Angeles.
Nut crops also take years to produce a yield. At a time when water is such an issue, you might think this would put farmers off from switching to such crops. But according to Bloomberg Business, in fact California farmers have turned to water-hungry nut crops more since the drought began. The reason is simple: they make more money. As Bloomberg reported over the summer, demand for nuts has grown in Asia, while other California mainstays like cotton and corn have shown decreasing profit margins due to higher water prices and increased competition.
And what allows such choices to go forward? A complete lack of state intervention. Until September the state had no law requiring local communities to regulate their groundwater (that is, their underground aquifers, which constitute one third of the water supply of the state). Farmers can legally pump out as much water as they want—even if it affects water supply on other farms—or to sell their water to other farms, an estimated 60 billion dollar industry. Even with the new law, local communities will not be required to achieve sustainability for 25 years.
In October the Los Angeles Times likewise reported on central California’s massive Westlands Water District, where politically connected, wealthy farmers are fighting to continue to be provided with cheap water for their farms, despite their land having inadequate drainage and contaminants that ends up wasting water. (They, too, have a lot of nut crops. Of course.) The Times found “In all of California, there may be no worse place to practice the kind of industrial-scale irrigated agriculture that Westlands is famous for than the badly drained, salt-laden lands that make up roughly half the district.”
In the fall Dr. Joseph Reichenberger, professor of civil engineering at Loyola Marymount University and one of the directors of the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, put the issue to me very simply: “Because water [for agriculture] is cheap, they have no incentive to maximize efficiency.”
None of this is to say that the residents of California should not be asked to look at their personal water consumption. Los Angeles is in fact the fourth lowest per capita water user in the entire country. Still, its manicured lawns are both unnecessary and a too easy distraction from the most serious issues facing the state.
And Governor Brown's concern for the poor is laudable. Would that more governors expressed such a concern so clearly, and for all their residents, regardless of their race or immigration status.
Still, if he does find a way to move beyond easy targets and media-friendly spin to face the mismanagement and sheer greed being perpetrated elsewhere, soon enough he may very well find just how hard it is to squeeze water from a rock.
And unfortunately, whether we're showering for two minutes or ten, so will the rest of us.