How Growers Gamed California’s Drought

Pistachio nuts growing on treeCCD Editor’s Note: The following is from The Daily Beast, which isn’t exactly a right-wing rag, about the current drought in California. Most of it has useful information, and some is pure speculation (regarding climate change impacts), so I’ve tried to include what I think are the salient points without getting into the global warming drama. Emphasis added:

“I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank,” said pistachio farmer John Dean at a conference hosted this month by Paramount Farms, the mega-operation owned by Stewart Resnick, a Beverly Hills billionaire known for his sprawling agricultural holdings, controversial water dealings, and millions of dollars in campaign contributions to high-powered California politicians including Governor Jerry Brown, former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

The record drought now entering its fourth year in California has alarmed the public, left a number of rural communities without drinking water, and triggered calls for mandatory rationing. There’s no relief in sight: The winter rainy season, which was a bust again this year, officially ends on April 15. Nevertheless, some large-scale farmers are enjoying extraordinary profits despite the drought, thanks in part to infusions of what experts call dangerously under-priced water. …

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.

Lawmakers have begun, gingerly, to reform the water system, but experts say that much remains to be done. For years, California was the only state in the arid West that set no limits on how much groundwater a property owner could extract from a private well. Thus nearly everyone and their neighbors in the Central Valley have been drilling deeper and deeper wells in recent years, seeking to offset reductions in state and federal water deliveries. This agricultural version of an arms race not only favors big corporate enterprises over smaller farmers, it threatens to collapse the aquifers whose groundwater is keeping California alive during this drought and will be needed to endure future droughts. (Groundwater supplies about 40 percent of the state’s water in years of normal precipitation but closer to 60 percent in dry years.)

Last fall, the legislature passed and Governor Brown signed a bill to regulate groundwater extraction. But the political touchiness of the issue—agricultural interests lobbied hard against it—resulted in a leisurely implementation timetable. Although communities must complete plans for sustainable water management by 2020, not until 2040 must sustainability actually be achieved. The Central Valley could be a dust bowl by then under current trends.

There are practical solutions to California’s drought, but the lack of realistic water prices and other incentives has slowed their adoption. A shift to more efficient irrigation methods could reduce agricultural water use by 22 percent, an amount equivalent to all the surface water Central Valley farmers lacked because of drought last year, according to an analysis that Cooley of the Pacific Institute co-authored with Robert Wilkinson, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Kate Poole, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. …

Meanwhile, underpriced water has enabled continued production of such water-intensive crops as alfalfa, much of which is exported to China. Rice, perhaps the thirstiest of major crops, saw its production area decrease by 25 percent in 2014. But pasture grass, which is used to fatten livestock, and many nut and fruit products have seen their acreage actually increase. Resnick told the Paramount Farms conference that the acreage devoted to pistachios had grown by 118 percent over the last 10 years; for almonds and walnuts the growth rates were 47 and 30 percent, respectively.

One striking aspect of California’s water emergency is how few voices in positions of authority have been willing to state the obvious. To plant increasing amounts of water-intensive crops in a desert would be questionable in the best of times.

“California Has One Year of Water Left, Will You Ration Now?” asked the headline of a widely discussed opinion piece NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti published in the Los Angeles Times on March 16.  The headline overstated the situation somewhat, and editors soon corrected it to clarify that California has one remaining year of stored water, not one year of total water. As Famiglietti was careful to state, California’s reservoirs today contain enough water to supply a year of average consumption.

So if California endures a fourth year of drought, the only way to keep household taps and farmers’ irrigation lines flowing will be to summon to the surface still greater volumes of groundwater. But that strategy can’t work forever; worse, the longer it is pursued, the bigger the risk that it collapses aquifers, rendering them irretrievably barren. Aquifers can be replenished—if rainwater and snowmelt are allowed to sink into the ground and humans don’t keep raiding the supply—and that is the expressed goal of California’s forthcoming groundwater regulations. The process takes many decades, however, and extended relief from further droughts.

California is caught between the lessons of its history and the habits of its political economy. Droughts of 10 years duration and longer have been a recurring feature in the region for thousands of years, yet a modern capitalist economy values a given commodity only as much as the price of that commodity. Current pricing structures enrich a handful of interests, but they are ushering the state as a whole toward a parched and perilous future.

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  • Avatar

    Amber

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    BC’s lower mainland gets over 40 inches of rain per year ,the mighty Fraser River running past it’s door and coastal mountains less than 5 miles from the Fraser Valley .
    Talk about sending one drop to anywhere and you will be roundly chastised .

    Personally I value all that California produce and would be happy to see
    the water resource shared rather than massive energy consuming desalination plants pulling from the ocean .

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Gator

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    When Californication bans swimming pools, water parks, golf courses, and all fossil fuel consumption, then I will consider taking them seriously. I can grow and hunt my own food, I don’t need you.

    Hey Governor Moonbeam! You live in a [i]desert[/i].

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Robert

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    Yes, let the Californians really preserve their environment, that means no terraforming. Anywhere in Southern California that isn’t normally green without tons of water pumped in from out of state, such as Palm Springs, should have their water cut off so they can return the environment to the way they found it.

    Like that will ever happen.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    sonnyhill

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    [quote name=”Amber”]BC’s lower mainland gets over 40 inches of rain per year ,the mighty Fraser River running past it’s door and coastal mountains less than 5 miles from the Fraser Valley .
    Talk about sending one drop to anywhere and you will be roundly chastised .

    Personally I value all that California produce and would be happy to see
    the water resource shared rather than massive energy consuming desalination plants pulling from the ocean .[/quote]Why is Canada so eager to sell oil, but lets fresh water mix with the oceans’ brine? I know that moving large quantities of fresh water to the American South West would be Herculean. It would be money well-spent compared to green energy. Twin the Keystone XL with a similar water line and watch the Canadian left go bonkers!

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