By Paul M. Lewis
To say that California is dying of thirst may be something of an overstatement, but there is no argument that the state is becoming more and more parched. The statistics don’t lie. Average rainfall has been off significantly for the last several years, and most disastrously the Sierra snowpack is so low as to be almost nonexistent. The annual measurement at Phillips Station, for example, just off of Highway 50, would normally put snow levels at above 66 feet for this time of year. Instead, it is now completely devoid of any snow whatsoever. What this means, for anyone unfamiliar with how things work here, is that the snow that normally accumulates in the higher levels of the Sierra Nevada mountains and slowly melts as the weather warms up, giving us lowlanders the benefit of regular runoff, is simply not there. That’s bad news for residents, for agriculture, and for all living things.
Just last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and mandated a 25% reduction in water usage. Given record low rain and snowfall amounts, this is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. We all have to do our part. Homeowners must reevaluate those thirsty, lush green lawns so favored by most of us, and we’d all do well to be thinking of replacing them with native, drought-tolerant plants. Even restaurants are being told that customers should only get a glass of water with dinner if they specifically ask for it.
But is everybody doing their part equally? It seems as though that hasn’t been true at the residential level, for one. Wealthier enclaves such as Beverly Hills and Newport Beach use far more water per capita than lower socioeconomic areas. And it’s not just because of those big swimming pools in their big backyards either. Take a drive around and compare the sumptuous lawns of Beverly Hills to what you see in Compton or Santa Ana. First of all, there are far more apartment buildings in poorer areas, but even single family dwellings in less affluent parts of town tend to have browner front lawns. Who knew that it wasn’t just politics, but water too, that followed the money?
As striking as some of this is, residential/urban use accounts for only about 20% of water allocation in the state. Included in this number is approximately 6% for industrial usage (it’s also interesting, by the way, to note that half of residential usage goes for outside watering). But agriculture uses up the remaining 80%, even if not all agriculture is equal. Here are a few interesting statistics:
COMPARISON OF WATER USAGE (in gallons per pound)
- beef—1847 vs. chicken—518
- almonds (shelled)—2126 vs. walnuts (shelled)—1226
- rice—287 vs. corn—161
- brussel sprouts—258 vs. broccoli—34
- grapes—80 vs. potatoes—38
- green beans—74 vs. carrots—26
- eggplant—48 vs. tomatoes—26
In other words, it’s not just whether we do away with our lawns, or take shorter showers, or wash our cars a lot less often that makes a difference. Our choices as to what we consume also have an impact. The Los Angeles Times did a very interesting spread in their April 4, 2015 edition, in which they showed a photo of a plate of food. On the plate were pictured the following: an 8 oz. steak, 6 oz. of rice, 8 oz. of lettuce (i.e. a salad), and a 4 oz. glass of wine. The total water footprint for this meal comes in at just over 116 gallons of water—102 gallons of which are accounted for simply by the steak alone. So suggestions about cutting back on how much meat we consume, beef in particular, are reasonable from many different perspectives.
California, a state where every area is in severe, extreme, or even exceptional drought, currently provides 25% of food consumed in the United States. And yet, agriculture represents less than 2% of GSP (Gross State Product). But 85% of the Sacramento Irrigation District’s acreage is devoted to the production of rice, one of the thirstiest of cultivated plants. Does that make a lot of sense, at a time when mandatory water rationing is taking place for residential users? Almonds, too, another staple of state agribusiness, bringing in almost 6 billion dollars a year, require a gallon of water per single almond produced.
When Gov. Brown was asked recently if the state ought to be telling farmers what crops to raise and which ones not to, his reply was that it was not up to government to tell people (i.e. agribusiness) what to grow. But why not? Government regulates business all the time. Just ask the Better Business Bureau what it thinks about the supposed burden of laws pertaining to everything from the health and safety of workers, to fair payment of wages (e.g. minimum wage laws), working conditions, privacy regulations, truth in advertising, and of course a whole host of environmental laws.
To be fair, it is also worth noting that farmers have had their own difficulties, and many of them are finding it harder and harder to keep their crops healthy, due to decreases in deliveries of water. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation has mandated that no water be delivered to farmers with “junior water rights.” This speaks to the way water is divvied up in this state, which is arcane at best, and it’s an understatement to say that huge political pressure has come to bear on how water is allocated. As just one example of that complexity, certain types of water rights (so-called “senior water rights”), including groundwater, riparian, and pre-1914 appropriations, are excluded from the State Water Board’s authority. In other words, agreements that were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the state had a mere fraction of its present population (1.2 million compared with 38 million—projected to be 50 million by 2050), and when we were not in drought, are still in effect.
No one is saying that the swimming pools and lawns of Beverly Hills ought to remain exempt, but neither is it fair to balance overuse of water by cutting Compton more than Newport Beach. Nor should farmers and ranchers whose families happen to have settled here in the 1890’s get a pass. Times have changed, and we have to change with them. California definitely needs to do something about its water problems. No argument. But that’s true for all Californians, not just residential users and some farmers. Everyone would do well to remember that no natural resource, water included, is unlimited. These last few years it’s been California’s turn, but Australia went through the same thing not so long ago, and larger and larger portions of the Sahel—the geographic region located between the Sahara and the plains and forests of north central Africa—are experiencing ever-increasing desertification. Weather patterns are shifting along with the warming of the globe and alarming increases in world population. One way or another, this will come to have an impact on everyone.
The water shortages in California are undoubtedly due to some combination of natural variability, changes in climate caused by human activity, our own choices as to what to grow and eat, and the enormous increases in demand that have come about over the decades. This is emblematic of a larger global problem, and the same complexities seen in California will eventually come to influence worldwide water supplies. It’s only a matter of time. What we do to address the consequences of such changes, and how people here in California and elsewhere decide to react, represent a set of choices that only we, humans, can make. Whether we make those choices wisely, or foolishly, is in the end up to us to decide.