Opinion

California's cracking down on urban water waste. What about the farmers?

California city dwellers might do more to save water if farmers also had to make greater sacrifices

California's brutal drought has state officials looking for ways to conserve water. Ideas that they are considering include "directing urban agencies to limit the number of days residents can water their yards," according to The Times. The emergency restrictions also "prohibit landscape irrigation during and for 48 hours after measurable rainfall, direct restaurants to serve water only on request and instruct hotels to offer customers the option of not having their linens and towels washed daily," Bettina Boxall reported.  

As George Skelton points out in his Times column, state water conservation efforts are focused almost exclusively on individuals while ignoring the well-hydrated elephant in the room: California's agriculture industry consumes the lion's share of the state's "developed water" (i.e., water that is managed and controlled in reservoirs, dams, rivers, etc.).

"Urban use accounts for only 20% of California's developed water. Agriculture sucks up 80%," Skelton writes. "Some calculate it a little differently: 10% urban, 40% agriculture and 50% environment — meaning every drop in the rivers and marshes. Same thing. Yet, no one in Sacramento wants to tell farmers how to use water — what they can and cannot plant and irrigate."

By some measures, it takes an entire gallon of water to grow a single almond, according to Mother Jones magazine. "Yet, a farmer can plant whatever he pleases, even if surface water is flowing at a trickle and the aquifer is collapsing," Skelton notes.

Homeowners would probably be a lot more willing to sacrifice if they were convinced that they were part of a team effort in which everyone, including agribusiness, tightened their belts. As things stand, it feels like they're being singled out.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled that his administration is beginning to focus on agriculture and may propose regulations and restrictions that, for example, benefit less water-intensive crops over others. Better late than never, but one naturally wonders why, like Willie Sutton who robbed banks because that's where the money was, the government doesn't first look to save water on big farms, since that's where the water is going?

Isn't it easier and cheaper to regulate the water consumption habits of a few thousand huge farms than of millions of individual households?

A cynic might point to the power of agribusiness lobbyists in Sacramento, and specifically the sector's generous contributions to Brown's election campaigns and to ballot measures near and dear to his political heart.

To be more charitable, agriculture is big business, and the last thing anyone wants to see is a major economic sector of the state suffer, pay fewer taxes and lay people off.

Whatever the reason for the long delay, nothing focuses the mind more than imminent crisis, and the possibility that the state might run out of water qualifies. "Between 2003 and 2010, the [Central] Valley's aquifers lost a total of 20 cubic kilometers  of groundwater — enough to meet the household water needs of New York City for 11 years," Mother Jones reported.

And then came the current drought, which started in 2011, when suddenly the region's groundwater was being pumped up at an estimated rate of nearly seven cubic kilometers per year. That's the same amount of water that everyone in Texas uses at home annually."

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