Cheap Water for Agriculture Worsens California Water Crisis

“I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank,” pistachio farmer John Dean said at a conference hosted earlier this month by Paramount Farms, the world’s largest almond and pistachio processor. Paramount is 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 California politicians.

The record drought, now entering its fourth year in California, has alarmed the public, left some rural communities without drinking water and led Gov. Jerry Brown last week to impose the first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history. But the governor’s executive order required cutbacks only from the urban sector that uses roughly 20 percent of California’s developed water; the agricultural sector, which uses 80 percent, was required only to formulate “plans” for coping with future drought.

Responding to criticism about letting agriculture off easy, Brown and his aides pointed out that farmers have already been cut back. In February, U.S. officials announced that agriculture’s allocation of federal water supplies in California would be cut to zero in 2015. State water allocation to agriculture will be only 20 percent in 2015. And these reductions come on top of earlier cutbacks in 2014.

Yet despite such cutbacks, farmers like Dean and Resnick are enjoying record profits—and increasing the acreage planted in alfalfa, almonds and other notoriously water-intensive crops—thanks in part to infusions of what experts call dangerously underpriced water.

Resnick, whose legendary marketing flair included hiring Stephen Colbert to star in a 2014 Super Bowl commercial, told the conference that pistachios generated an average net return of $3,519 per acre in 2014, based on a record wholesale price of $3.53 a pound. Almonds, an even “thirstier” crop, averaged $1,431 per acre.

Stevens Creek Reservoir has nearly dried up due to the drought.

Stevens Creek Reservoir has nearly dried up due to the drought.

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 can only thrive if massive irrigation water is applied.

Until recently, agriculture’s 80 percent share of state water consumption has rarely been mentioned in most political and media discussions of California’s drought. Instead, 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 that restaurants serve water only if customers explicitly request it and homeowners 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 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 me.

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 there remains far to go. 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.

Last fall, the legislature passed and Gov. 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. Not until 2040 or beyond will sustainable practices be in place.

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 due to drought last year, according to an analysis that Cooley 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.

While nut exports help the balance of trade, the use of groundwater could put the state at risk for future droughts.

While nut exports help the balance of trade, the use of groundwater could put the state at risk for future droughts.

The Brown administration has endorsed better water efficiency—and put a small amount of money where its mouth is. Conservation is the number one priority in the governor’s Water Action Plan, and the drought measures he advanced in 2014 included $10 million to help farmers implement more efficient water management. An additional $10 million was allocated as part of the $1.1 billion drought spending plan Brown and bipartisan legislators unveiled last week. Already more than 50 percent of California’s farmers use drip or micro irrigation, said Steve Lyle, the director of public affairs at the California Department of Food and Agriculture; the new monies will encourage further adoptions.

Nevertheless, underpriced water has enabled expanded production of such water-intensive crops as alfalfa, which is by far the largest user of agricultural water in California—and often is exported to China. Rice, perhaps the thirstiest of major crops, did see 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 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. To continue doing so in the middle of a historic drought, even as scientists warn that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of future droughts, seems nothing less than reckless.

Yet even a politician as gutsy and scientifically informed as Brown tiptoes around such questions. I asked Brown if in this time of record drought California should begin pricing water more realistically and discouraging water-intensive crops. Responding on the governor’s behalf, spokesman Lyle skipped the water-pricing question. On crop choices, he cited a reply Brown recently offered to a similar question: “Growing a walnut or an almond takes water, having a new house with a bunch of toilets and showers takes water. So how do we balance use efficiency with the kind of life that people want in California? …We’re all going to have to pull together.”

“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 last month in the Los Angeles Times. 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.

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 in the marketplace. Current pricing structures enrich a handful of interests, but they are ushering the state as a whole towards a parched and perilous future.

The price of water, however, is not determined by inalterable market forces; it is primarily a function of government policies and the social forces that shape them. Elected officials may dodge the question for now, but the proper price of water seems destined to become an unavoidable issue in California politics.

“As our water supply gets more variable and scarce in the future, we’re going to have to look at how we price water so it gets used more efficiently,” said Cooley of the Pacific Institute. “In some ways we’ve come a long way in California’s water policy and practices over the past 20 years. But if you look into a future of climate change and continued [economic] development, we can and need to do much better.”

This article was adapted from one that originally appeared in The Daily Beast; copyright 2015 Mart Hertsgaard.

Mark Hertsgaard has reported on politics, culture and the environment from more than 20 countries and has authored six books, including HOT:  Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

42 Comments

  1. Blaming agriculture is like blaming the retiree’s on prop 13 for our tax crisis. Nowhere in this article do I see a mention of water going for construction, the expansion of housing, or the fact that Northern California ships a large amount of water to LA via the California Aqueduct.

    I guess it’s not politically correct to put the blame on the millions recent arrivals to California soaking their lawns until the water runs into the street. At least in Agriculture a good portion of that runoff makes it back into the water table, instead of flowing over non-permiable surfaces (concrete, etc) into the creeks.

    Let’s not forget companies like Nestle, who have several wells operating up and down the state.

    • Nature causes droughts.

      Politicians cause water shortages.

      For more than three thousand years, humanity knew how to deal with water shortages.

      There is abundant fresh water available in the Sierras, in the Pacific Northwest, in Canada. There are people eager to sell water to California. There are people eager to transport water to California.

      Let’s make a deal!

      Endangered snail darters, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, human caused global warming are just floats in the endless parade of lies dumped on the busy, hard-working American people by the Malthusian elites who have engineered the water shortage.

      The end game is population control. “Humanity is an invasive species”. Paul Erlich explained it all in “The Population Bomb”.

      The Sierra Club wants you to go away. After all, it’s THEIR planet, not yours. And there are way too many of YOU.

      The Sierra Clubbers have trust funds. They can drink bottled water.

      But working people need jobs, and the jobs that working people are paid to do require water.

      No water. No jobs. No invasive species.

    • So I’m curious about those who find “people” and “housing” as the source of the problem. As they themselves are usually “people” who live in “housing” why aren’t they just as culpable as anyone?

      • Please don’t overlook the fast that those “peoole” in “housing” ,need to “eat.” And “people” eat “food” and “food requires water.” let’s not forget that “people” are mostly made of “water”

        it is really hard to fathom why SJI would publish this really idiotic piece so “late.” Yes, “late.”

        “April Fools Day” was 8 days ago.

    • Cousin Cortese: Agriculture is 2% of California’s GDP, yet it consumes 80% of the state’s water. And every one of those growers wants 100% of their allocation of the cheap water provided either by the feds or the state. Kinda reminds me of public employees. The City of San Jose’s employees and retirees combined make up less than 2% of SJ’s population, yet they want all of theirs, and to hell with everyone else. Flood irrigation in the Central Valley for trees, rice, and cotton in the summer, where it’s over 100 every day, where evaporation sucks up a lot of that water, makes no sense at all. As for the percolation into the ground on farms and in orchards, which you call runoff, that water is contaminated by herbicides and pesticides as it “replenishes” ground water supplies. I agree with you that daily watering of lawns in a semi-arid desert makes no sense at all. But it’s worse in SoCal, where many people are still hosing down their driveways during this drought. What do they care? They get their water from NorCal. The averages for water allocation reductions are misleading. Some growers are getting zero. The water district in Ripon, where almonds and other crops are grown using flood irrigation, is providing 87% of normal allocation to its member growers this growing season. Water policy in Cali needs a complete overhaul. But good luck on that, with all the tassel-loafered lobbyists in Sacto. Governor Brown’s edict makes that clear—lean on the 20% of users to cut back by 30%, and let the 80% skate.

      • The only reason it’s a 2% GDP is because iPads and Intel chips sell at a much higher profit margin. GDP is irrelevant, people need food.

        JMO when water evaporates, what happens to it? Is it gone forever?

        As far as Ripon, I was just there last weekend. Every orchard was fitted with drip irrigation. The farmers got the message, my neighbors and their lawns still have not.

        Here’s a nice graph from the California department of finance, it shows our population tripled between the 40’s and now.
        http://www.samrafarms.com/uploads/1/2/8/8/12887491/4198758_orig.gif

        I can’t see how a triple growth rate in 50 years with a 3.36% per year average isn’t putting a huge dent in our water supply. The average human uses 40 gallons per day, at this rate the state has gone from 300 million gallons per day, to almost a billion gallons per day.

        Finally, while population has steadily increased, the amount of farmland over the country has decreased signifigantly, another nice graph.
        http://farmpolicy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/NAssFrms13Feb19.jpg

        Between the decline of farming and modern farming techniques, I can only deduce that the amount of water required for farming has dropped significantly too.

      • “Agriculture is 2% of California’s GDP, yet it consumes 80% of the state’s water. And every one of those growers wants 100% of their allocation of the cheap water provided either by the feds or the state. Kinda reminds me of public employees. The City of San Jose’s employees and retirees combined make up less than 2% of SJ’s population, yet they want all of theirs, and to hell with everyone else”.

        Yeah, 2% of the population covers you in fires, police action, tickets your silly A$$ and the like. You are a stone-jerk. This seals it, you are a just not very good at math, let alone anything else….

        • Don’t be too mad at him Bohica. To him and a few others, I’m a juicy target to debate with.. He probably meant Beau Goldie, and had no ill will towards safety employees.

          • Understood….and i should make the attempt to be more forgiving….i just call an opportunist out when i see it.

      • ” that water is contaminated by herbicides and pesticides as it “replenishes” ground water supplies”

        Ba-loney!!

        By the time the “contaminated” water reaches the water table – hundreds of feet down, the water has been filtered and cleansed far better than anything mankind can devise.

        There are no “contaminates” in water that has been filtered through hundreds of feet of rock and loam.

  2. mark the ex ceo from scvwd is head of water desal company, blam scvwd for poor planning, not farmers, while Beua at the golden spigot makes 500plus k a year, wear is his planning, well its trying to spend tax dollars on a new board room, when its not needed, go ask the av tech whats going on, and why is scvwd not building water desal?

  3. I think we all have to come to terms with fact we are in a drought. We are all responsible, naturally not responsible for nature and how it works but as consumers and how we consume. Governments always appear to be the last people to see the big picture, funny how that works. The last few years cities have been adding more buildings and not considering utilities etc, we have been speaking at community events bringing this up and it’s as though we speak to the void. Politicians must have the biggest egos and they continue to answer the question, where is the water coming from to look after all these people. Are they planning to build a large pipe from the east coast to bring the snow that melts? or are they going to bus it in? come on guys it’s a great question. Where is the water coming from and for years the politicians have not answered. I just shake my head and wonder why we elect these idiots.

  4. > The price of water, however, is not determined by inalterable market forces; it is primarily a function of government policies and the social forces that shape them.

    1. Change the politicians.

    2. Change the government policies.

    > “As our water supply gets more variable and scarce in the future,

    3. Change the supply of water so that it is LESS variable and LESS scare.

    Idiots.
    Morons.
    Lunkheads.
    Scoundrels.

  5. > Yet even a politician as gutsy and scientifically informed as Brown . . . .

    Scientifically informed? Jerry Brown? Governor Medfly?

    Social science. Political science. Science fiction.

  6. How do the bottleing plants affect water supply? the water from Arrowhead of Aquafina or Coca Cola etc . . . It seems like a lot of water would be used in those facilities.

    • SYLKO: People drink bottled water because they don’t want to drink Cousin Cortese’s “runoff” water from flood irrigation. But the joke’s on them–that’s exactly what they are drinking. The safest and cheapest drinking water is still municipal tap water, but only after you filter out the bad taste with a Brita or some other form of home filtration system.

      • People drink bottled water because they don’t want to drink Cousin Cortese’s “runoff” water from flood irrigation.

        You’re silly JMO. We had trees, everyone knows you don’t flood irrigate trees.

        • I sent this reply to Cousin Cortese hours ago, yet Josh failed to publish it. I’ll try again.
          Cousin Cortese: Agriculture is 2% of California’s GDP, yet it consumes 80% of the state’s water. And every one of those growers wants 100% of their allocation of the cheap water provided either by the feds or the state. Kinda reminds me of public employees. The City of San Jose’s employees and retirees combined make up less than 2% of SJ’s population, yet they want all of theirs, and to hell with everyone else. Flood irrigation in the Central Valley for trees, rice, and cotton in the summer, where it’s over 100 every day, where evaporation sucks up a lot of that water, makes no sense at all. As for the percolation into the ground on farms and in orchards, which you call runoff, that water is contaminated by herbicides and pesticides as it “replenishes” ground water supplies. I agree with you that daily watering of lawns in a semi-arid desert makes no sense at all. But it’s worse in SoCal, where many people are still hosing down their driveways during this drought. What do they care? They get their water from NorCal. The averages for water allocation reductions are misleading. Some growers are getting zero. The water district in Ripon, where almonds and other crops are grown using flood irrigation, is providing 87% of normal allocation to its member growers this growing season. Water policy in Cali needs a complete overhaul. But good luck on that, with all the tassel-loafered lobbyists in Sacto. Governor Brown’s edict makes that clear—lean on the 20% of users to cut back by 30%, and let the 80% skate.

          • > Flood irrigation in the Central Valley for trees, rice, and cotton in the summer, where it’s over 100 every day, where evaporation sucks up a lot of that water, makes no sense at all.

            Makes no sense at all because . . . the supplier selling the water doesn’t have to account for the true costs. That would be the Feddle gubmint.

            BECAUSE the water is sold below market by a monopoly supplier:

            A. Water consumers do foolish, uneconomic, unsustainable, wasteful things with their cheap water, and

            B. Other suppliers of water DECLINE to enter the market because the dumbest thing in business is to compete with stupid competitors who underprice their products and DON’T KNOW OR DON’T CARE that the are losing money.

            Solution:

            1. End gubmint subsidies for water, for solar power, for affordable housing, for electric cars, etc. etc. etc.

            2 Free the market place and allow and encourage water entrepreneurs to enter the market with solutions the market demands: recycling, conservation, desalinization, transportation, crop substitution, new sources, etc, etc, etc.

            3. If the gubmint wants to”help”, cancel the stupid, wasteful High Speed Rail and build an (International) Interstate Water Transportation System ( like the Interstate Highway System).

            The supply of water goes up when capitalists can make money on it.
            The supply of water goes down when the government regulates it.

          • Not so sure that flood irrigation is a wasteful way to water. I really doubt if a significant amount is lost to evaporation before the water soaks into the sun parched earth.
            And at least the almond trees produce food. How much food do the trees planted by Our City Forest produce? Hmmm? These City subsidized trees soak up water that was destined for the aquifer and spew it into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Just like lawns do.

  7. The author of this article expresses concern- and rightly so- about the “great unmentionables”. But he’s evidently afraid to mention one unmentionable and that’s unrestrained immigration, it’s impact on our population and on the amount of water that’s used.

    It’s one thing to have a roommate who uses more than his share of water in some gardening project in the backyard. Things can be worked out with such a roommate..
    It’s a different matter altogether to have a roommate who, without asking, invites his friends to live in your house and use your water, plays dumb when you point it out to him, and hires expensive lawyers and cozies up to the landlord to prevent you from evicting these water consuming lawbreakers.
    Agriculture has a legitimate place in California.
    Illegal aliens do not.
    You want to start pointing fingers at “great unmentionables” then do the intellectually honest thing and point fingers at ALL of them.

    • > The author of this article expresses concern- and rightly so- about the “great unmentionables”.

      The author of the article is being sneaky in trying to make the case that water is priced below market which is resulting in waste and water shortage. He’s just trashing market economics and trying to lead the gullible to a belief that the solution is government regulation in all its forms (“conservation”, “rationing”, “mandates”, every form of life stlyle coercion they can think of).

      What the article tiptoes around is that the supply of water is bureaucratically controlled by the government. It’s the Federal Government that controls the supply of water and UNDERPRICES it.

      The TRUE market solution would be to allow investors to construct a transportation infrastructure and allow California consumers of water to buy it at market prices wherever there are willing sellers.

      Obama wasted trillions of dollars on “stimulus” to build “infrastructure”, but none of that infrastructure had anything to do with increasing the supply and accessability of water in California.

      The water shortage is a politician caused crisis: Obama, Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer.

    • Unfortunately, they are an intregal part of the California farming system.

  8. bottling plants like nestle pay 4$ for 2 million gallons, then resale that for profit of 20 mill. but the ceo of scvwd should be pushing desal instead of rebuilding board room

    • Don’t tell the resident know-it-all angry ivory tower attorneyJMO or he’ll start belly aching about capitalism.

      • Wrong AGAIN Weedboy. I have ZERO problems with capitalism or companies making a profit. Never have. And I am most definitely NOT ivory tower. Smokin’ too much of your namesake, Weedboy?

        • JMO and SJOTB …two peas in a pod! JMO bellyaches about agribiz getting breaks on the commodity they need to grow food and compares them to his favorite scapegoat: public emoloyees?

          OtB don’t l bother lecturing me on capitalism I feed my family and more with it ..
          And to both of you geniuses and any other idiot who doesn’t get it…the name has very little to do with marijuana. (Never touched the stuff unless you absolutists count second hand)… the name is a play on your hero’s title and last name. Kind of fitting since that guy while trying to grind police and fire into the ground sold SJ a real bill-of-goods withe the Medical MJ collective laws as a way to help SJ out of its financial dilemma. ..then he could only collect pennies on the dollar in fees owed the City and on and on… ahh Like I said Ivory tower … add rock thrower with a weak arm and probably weak back too.

      • Wheedle:

        If there were no capitalism, you would still be a tribalist hunter-gatherer.

        And FYI, hunter-gatherers weren’t big on welfare. It you didn’t bring in your quota of turkeys or wild boar, you could be eaten.

        What have you done for the collective lately?

        • I’ve said before. I got mine thanks to Cesar Chavez. when he destroyed my families livliihood here in the valley he turned our land into gold for housing while simultaneously cutting our overhead to near nothing…

          Every day is Cesar Chavez day with my peeps…

          • > he turned our land into gold for housing while simultaneously cutting our overhead to near nothing…

            Oh. I see, A real estate trust fund child.

            Cesar Chavez didn’t do that for you. The ancient people who discovered that private property was necessary for herding and agriculture did that for you.

            Otherwise, the tribalist hunter-gatherers would have long ago run you off of “your land”.

  9. Simple solution to the 80% water being wasted by the Valley growers. Do like the Silicon valley Corporations have been doing right along with products manufactured in China, and other third world countries ending up here in the USA. No labor cost, etc.
    Grow the cotton and Pistachios, in China. Stop the water welfare doled out to the ranchers and farmers. NOW !!!!!

  10. Water rights should not be passed down through inheritance. Thats too much like extra rights afforded to royalty. No one should be born with more rights than everyone else.

  11. SJOTB…hardly a trust fund child just a man who turned a negative in to a very big positive and who stills works the land with his trust fund children (who know the value of work and earning a living). As is so often the case, the more you post the more straws you grasp at and the sillier you paint yourself.

    • > As is so often the case, the more you post the more straws you grasp at and the sillier you paint yourself.

      So, then, does that mean I’m not invited to the Hillary fundraiser at your house? I assume it’s only for serious people.

          • Considering the way you bloviate and how you typically treat people who don’t march in lock step with you? I don’t give a hoot about your feelings.

    • Now now you two…

      I enjoy both your perspectives.

      Weed, your defense of your brothers and sisters is not only admirable, but warranted (I really wish I didn’t have to start a Guardian Angels Chapter, I would much rather have you guys getting paid right)

      SJO- You offer a delightful, whimsical philosophy on everything while not really taking a position in line with any parties or unions, offering a 3rd party perspective, one which puts a smile on my face :)

      Now let’s knock off the mean mugging and play nice together.