Farmers Use Water. Get Over It.

Yes, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California's water use. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Water, water, everywhere, and not enough for everyone.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Farming takes lots of water. There’s really no way around that. So I was a little surprised at how appalled many people seemed to be when I mentioned earlier this week that agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of California’s water use and 2 percent of its gross domestic product.

To me this feels a little like complaining that California’s tech industry employs 95 percent of the software engineers to produce only 8 percent of state GDP. Or that the motion picture industry uses up 97 percent of California’s actors yet generates only 2.8 percent of GDP. Or that utilities take 99 percent of California’s natural gas and produce only 1.3 percent of GDP. Different industries require different inputs, and there is nothing per se wrong with farmers using a lot more of California’s water than its city dwellers do.

There is also nothing wrong with growing crops in California. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of “consumptive water use” nationwide, so California’s dependence on irrigation isn’t anomalous. As Steven Johnson pointed out in an excellent Medium essay Wednesday, Easterners have this weird fixation with California being the artificial and immoral colonization of a desert. There are definitely communities in Southern California that exist only because of water hauled in from hundreds of miles away, and I’ll leave it to you to judge whether that’s immoral. But New York City couldn’t survive without water piped in from mountain reservoirs 100 miles away. Large human settlements are by definition unnatural.

So is farming. That said, California’s Central Valley, where most of the state’s farming gets done, has always had tons of water. It doesn’t all come in the form of rain, especially not in the southern half of the valley, but it does flow through as runoff from the snowmelt and rainstorms of the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges. When California became a state in 1850, the Central Valley boasted two mighty rivers, each navigable by steamboat for hundreds of miles, and the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

The water demands of cities and farmers eventually cut down on the navigability of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and dried up Tulare Lake. But a river that once fed that lake was still swift and mean enough well into the 20th century that Merle Haggard could write a plausibly sad song about his darling drowning in it:

More to the point, diverting water from the Central Valley’s rivers made possible the growth of great cities along the coast and of the nation’s most important agricultural region in the valley itself. The problem the state is facing is that the rain and snow amounts that sustained this whole arrangement for more than a century may be giving way to a new, drier normal. Since 2000 California precipitation has been below “normal” for all but five years, and the drought that began in 2012 is now by many metrics the worst on record. It’s starting to look as if change in California water practices may be inevitable, and that means conflict is inevitable too.

I’m planning to dig into several of those conflicts in the days and weeks to come, but the biggest and most obvious one is between California’s urban dwellers and its farmers. As already noted, 80 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture. Every time a journalist trots out this statistic, a bunch of people with ties to California agriculture will immediately jump forward and say that, no, the correct percentage is between 40 percent and 50 percent. (Thanks for your tweets and e-mails, guys!) They get this measure from the California Department of Water Resources, which tries to tally up all the water that flows through the state’s rivers and streams and wetlands. Of all that water, farmers take somewhat less than half:


Of the water that human beings took out of the state’s rivers and pumped out of the ground from 2001 through 2010, though, farmers took 79.2 percent. Which measure is best depends on the context. In the context of California’s agricultural-urban water use divide, it seems pretty clear that the 80 percent figure is the right place to start.

Of course, then farmers have to get past the shock that many urban dwellers seem to experience upon learning that 80 percent of the state’s water use is for agriculture. But hey, at least Merle Haggard and I are trying to help with that part.

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