Opinion: California’s water wars present difficult lifestyle choices


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In his Blowback submission, John Sabo takes on both Victor Davis Hanson’s Aug. 7 Op-Ed, ‘California’s water wars,’ and Doug Obegi’s Aug.10 response, ‘It isn’t fish vs. farmers.’ Sabo isan associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and senior sustainability scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He was a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara for the past year.

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I agree with Doug Obegi’s thesis that the California water war is not as simple as fish versus farmers, but the story is not as simple as the dollar value of salmon versus tomatoes either. In either case, water shortage means jobs lost and the end of a way of life for families who have known that way of life for generations. The California water war is one symptom of a larger sustainability problem we face across the Southwestern United States: how to balance freshwater needs for farms, cities and ecosystems. Balancing these needs in a region that is already chronically water stressed will present some difficult lifestyle choices.

Rivers are the only renewable supply of freshwater in the Southwest, including California and six other states dependant on Colorado River water. These seven basin states appropriate the equivalent of 76% of the flow of all rivers in the Southwest, and many of them run dry. Add to this climate change. The freshwater in rivers is projected to decline by as much as 30% over the next 50 to 90 years. Demand will also increase. California’s population is expected to reach 60 million by 2050, a 1.5-fold increase in 50 years.

Thus, water authorities are in search of new or reused sources of water. Reclaimed water is certainly central to the solution in cities. Half of all household use is sprinkled on the yard, and a sizable fraction of the other half is used to flush toilets. Reclaimed water could be used instead of precious drinking water in these cases, reducing domestic demand by more than 50%. Unfortunately, the infrastructure for reclaimed water is not widely available, and it is costly.

Tap water and even domestic water use is a small drop in the bucket. Farms use 80% of the water consumed in the West, and more than half of this water reaches the crops via flood irrigation, which is inefficient but inexpensive. Some center pivot and most drip irrigation applications are up to 38% more efficient. Conversion of all farmland under flood irrigation to a more efficient application would save 5.6-18.8 million acre feet, depending on the assumed volume of return flow that can be reused in flood irrigated farmland. The low estimate is equivalent to 43% of the total withdrawals for all domestic, public and industrial use across the seven basin states in 2005. The high estimate is greater than all of these withdrawals and equivalent to more than half the volume of Lake Mead in water savings, every year. Not a trivial volume.

Should we mandate farm efficiency measures? Why don’t we make farmers convert to more efficient irrigation technology to save water for cities and ecosystems?

The answer is cost and lifestyle. Do you like to eat a baby green salad with heirloom tomatoes drizzled with organic olive oil, pistachio crusted salmon with an avocado aioli or sip a fine Pinot Noir? I have a soft spot for all of these delicacies grown or harvested in the Golden State. But that prospect might be in jeopardy if farmers have to pay to upgrade their infrastructure.

That cost exceeds $18 billion. This is just the startup cost. This cost would likely be passed on to consumers at top eateries and farmers markets in terms of higher food prices.

Question: What is the solution to this important problem?

Answer: Tiered water pricing and increased water tariffs at home.

We should expect to pay more for water in cities as they grow. This revenue should then be earmarked for financing startup costs for irrigation efficiency, reclaimed water systems and to buy back water for ecosystems. Call it what you like. The ‘T’ word. An environmental surcharge. A farm subsidy. I like to think of it as a lifestyle choice. I like affordable, nutritious produce, and I like that it comes from a farm that is not too far away. Moreover, my water bill is much less than my grocery bill. So I would rather pay more for the water I use at home and see agriculture and salmon persist in the West than see my grocery bills soar while most of the West waters lawns with tap water.


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-- John Sabo