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Cows Suck Up More Water Than Almonds

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Almond growers have been catching a lot of flak lately for snarfing up so much of California's water. This isn't entirely unfair -- almonds have been the state's big agricultural growth story during the past couple of decades, and they are thirsty little drupes. Still, it isn't the whole story. Last week Philip Bump of the Washington Post and Alissa Walker of Gizmodo both offered defenses of the almond-industrial complex that I would recommend reading if you're interested in that kind of stuff (I clearly am). Meanwhile, I figured I'd try to offer a little context.

Here are the top 10 water users among California's crops, compiled using the most recent California Department of Water Resources data I could get my hands on. I averaged data from one year of below-average precipitation, 2009, and one-year of above-average precipitation, 2010. 

One thing that stands out is how low many iconic and important California crops are on the list. Strawberries, for example, are part of that 10th-place "lettuce, broccoli" category -- the DWR calls it "other truck" -- which also includes other berries, artichokes, asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, celery, peas, spinach, flowers and nursery products. Tomatoes come in 12th place, onions and garlic 14th, melons, squash and cucumbers 16th.

Meanwhile, stuff that cows eat ranks pretty high on the list. There's alfalfa and pasture, of course. But also destined for livestock forage, according to this presentation by University of California-Davis irrigation specialist Blaine Hanson, is most of the corn, some of the flax and hops category (officially it's "other field crops," and includes sorghum, millet and sunflowers), plus a lot of the grains (which rank 11th in water use). In California, the livestock are overwhelmingly bovine, so put it all together and growing things to feed cattle use more than 10 million acre-feet of water in California in an average year. All the people in California used 8.6 million acre-feet a year in the two years in question. So that's interesting.

Now, the cattle themselves don't consume much water -- direct water use by livestock farmers in California seems to be quite modest. Also, I've already written a whole column about how comparing agricultural water use with urban water use can be misleading. People eat things that take lots of water to grow. People also eat cattle, and drink their milk. Still, it does seem important to understand that raising cattle takes up more of California's water than any other activity.

Then again, selling cattle and their milk is a big-money business in California:

Note that selling hay (aka alfalfa) is a big-money business too. Alfalfa exports to China from California and other Western states are booming, which strikes a lot of people as perverse.

Another phenomenon that strikes a lot of people as perverse is growing rice in California, much of it for export to Japan. As seen in the above charts, rice ranks No. 4 in agricultural water use in Calfornia, but rice doesn't even crack the top 10 in terms of revenue (it's No. 14, with $790 million in sales in 2013). Producing this rice requires leaving fields covered in 5 inches of water for the entire growing season. It also requires dropping seeds onto those fields from airplanes traveling at 100 miles per hour, which sounds totally cool. But I digress.

There are also legions of people who think raising animals and eating them is perverse, immoral and wasteful. It is pretty clear that if we just ate lettuce and broccoli and tomatoes, some beans or nuts for protein, and the occasional bowl of millet porridge just to live it up, California would have more than enough water to go around and the average American would have a body-mass index of 19. So many problems solved! 

But that's not the way things work in a market economy. I think one of the things that drives many California farmers crazy is that they see themselves as business people just trying to produce something that somebody else may be willing to buy, yet are often judged in the news media along moral dimensions that are seldom brought up with regard to other businesses.

Then again, other businesses don't require such massive amounts of water to produce their products, and in California the allocation of water is laughably far from being a market economy. It's not that farmers are cavorting under their sprinklers while urbanites are urged to skip showers, as several comments and e-mails I've received over the past week or so seem to intimate. Well, maybe a few are (sounds fun!), but lots of other farmers aren't getting any water at all this year from California's rivers and reservoirs. This is the result of the state's twisted system of water rights -- which is a topic for another day.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net