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.