I’ve been wondering if there is anything we can do to address this statewide issue of water shortages. As climate change continues unabated, is this the new normal?
Water in California is shared across three main areas. Statewide, average water use is roughly 50% environmental, 40% agricultural, and 10% residential. Environmental water use refers to water integral to preserving our rivers and natural habitats.
These protected waterways allow fish and wildlife to flourish in regions such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. They also allow for the long term preservation of national parks throughout the entire state.
As for agricultural use, more than nine million acres of farmland in California are irrigated. California is one of the biggest food producers and exporters in all of the United States. Every year we produce billions of dollars of food and many of these foods are heavily water intensive such as dairy, cattle, berries and nuts.
To put things in perspective, California is home to nearly 1.7 million dairy cows, which are largely part of mega-dairy operations. In addition to all the water polluted through runoff and waste, mega-dairies use 142 million gallons of water a day. This amount is more than the daily water usage for San Jose and San Diego combined.
While we spend large amounts of our water on agriculture, the profits are being concentrated in the hands of a small minority of large agricultural business owners. During droughts, the state water board starts to restrict water to farmers and residential areas with more junior water rights.
Senior water rights, established over a century ago, have largely been bought up by large agribusiness and private equity firms. This helps enable the industry to thrive even when smaller farms and residential areas are forced to cut back.
Furthermore, profits from these companies are used to lobby state legislatures to repeal environmental protections and keep these arcane water usage laws in place. Examples include Stewart & Lynda Resnick, billionaire pistachio farmers who spend millions of dollars financing both Democrats and Republicans to ensure their ability to use water is unchecked.
While a small few at the top of agribusiness reap the rewards, the workers themselves are being left out of any economic growth. Out of the ~240,000 total agricultural workers in California over a third (~40%) are undocumented. In the U.S. there are few protections for farmworkers in general.
Unlike employees in other industries, farm workers do not have minimum wage or guaranteed hours. Poverty, long hours, pesticide exposure, and lack of health care ultimately lead to farm workers having some of the worst health outcomes in the nation.
While producing food in our own state is incredibly important, we should be cognizant of what we are producing and how we are producing it. We should support small scale family farms who treat their workers well, grow organically, and respect the land.
I’ve been asking myself how best I can change my behavior so that I can do my part (albeit small) in helping conserve water. Learning about where our water goes has pushed me to be more intentional with my grocery purchases.
I shop at the Pleasanton or Livermore farmers markets so that I can develop a relationship with who I’m getting my produce from. Being a (mostly) vegetarian, avoiding meat heavy grocery items has been easy. However, I’ve also started to be more mindful of the amount of water intensive produce I purchase on a weekly basis, like nuts and avocados.
My individual consumer choices aren’t going to be enough to stem the tide of drought policies in the future. However, being intentional with what, where, and how I get produce has pushed me to appreciate those who take care in cultivating our sustenance.