Drought 101: The Big Gulp— Agriculture

We know that farms, orchards, and ranches use a ton of water. As we mentioned last week, agriculture accounts for 80% of the total accessible water use in California, and has thus become a lightning rod in the drought. Seems like you can’t stand in line at Blue Bottle without overhearing someone talk about boycotting almonds.

This week we’re looking at where agricultural water goes, what it does, and how we might approach a different method of use that isn’t so drastic as sanctioning any one food (full disclosure: we love almonds, maybe just not in the desert!)

Cash Crops

The agricultural community of California has come to use such a staggering amount of water for one reason: it’s very good business. Of California’s nearly $2 trillion economy, produce and livestock account for about 2%, or something in the realm of $40 billion annually. The resulting food industry provides millions of jobs and is estimated to add $100-300 billion of yearly value to the state’s economy as a whole.

Undoubtedly, the availability of cheap water has been a factor in the industry becoming a smashing success. Like many of our finite resources, water has not been priced to be used sparingly, conserved or recycled at all costs. Instead we priced it as though the supply were infinite, giving ag products better margins on the global market and farmers less incentive to use water carefully.

Feeding a Crowd

In economic terms, this plan really couldn’t have gone better. An unbeatable mix of high quality soil, near-constant year-round sun, abounding micro climates (and a dash of GMOs and pesticides!) has made California a grower’s paradise. Add to that an intricate and expansive export network, a little marketing, and suddenly you’re the produce aisle for the entire developed world.

A hefty portion of production is sold domestically, with California growing about 99% of all the artichokes, walnuts, kiwis, plums, celery, and garlic (and about 70% of all the spinach and carrots) consumed in the U.S. And that’s just a sliver of what we grow. We send Canada, Japan, China, South Korea, and Germany about 1.5 billion agricultural goods combined each year. And another 1.5 billion goods on top of that to 115 other countries in every corner of the planet.

As you might imagine, locking down a buyer base on all seven continents does some excellent things for your economy, but your environment? We were afraid someone was going to ask.

If the key to sustainability is balance, then this massive export market will only work if every country buying California produce starts paying in commensurate amounts of fresh water and arable land (or a few bucks for the emergency dam in the California Delta!) Of course money is supposed to be redeemable for anything you want, so we figure it’s about time that some of the funds generated by agriculture go toward covering the ecological costs of depleting our water reserves.

Liquid Assets

In a state where each acre of farmland has global implications, you might be surprised to find that the way water is monitored and shared in California agriculture is pretty imprecise.

Currently, water rights here are simply permission slips from the California Water Resources Control Board to draw as much as you’d like from whatever surface water is accessible (or has been made accessible) to your land. In early 20th century California, these were not so much carefully regulated as they were handed out to whoever got there first. AKA “first in time, first in right.” AKA someone yelling “Dibs!” and dropping a hose in the river.

This system encounters problems in times of scarcity, not least of which is the fact that California has given out rights to more water than it actually has (five times as much, to be exact), and now faces a need to either massively curtail current rights holders, or completely reform the rights system from the ground up.

And speaking of ground up, these rights didn’t even consider restrictions on groundwater pumping until 2014, and laws passed to update this oversight won’t take effect for some years yet. That means for the foreseeable future, it will be of particular importance to make sure rights holders don’t suck aquifers dry in an attempt to make up for the lack of snowpack. 

Almonds Aren’t That Bad

There we said it! Sure they’re water-intensive, but is that really the whole picture?

Amidst the need for larger reforms, conservation is the most effective, cheapest step toward sustainability. And to approach conservation, we need to look at our crops holistically: Like, instead of measuring profit margin, what if we consider impacts to human health, resilience of soil, viability of local markets, and then profit to figure out whether the juice is worth the squeeze?

To simply ask, “How much water does it take to produce an almond?” versus say, a carrot, ignores the fact that an almond delivers over three times the calories and protein per ounce, and thus might actually be worth the water. The same nuance could be applied to questions like, “How much water does it take to grow a head of lettuce?” Which gets one answer in relatively cool, moist Salinas near the Monterey Peninsula, and an entirely different (bigger) answer in the Imperial Valley on the Mexican border, where a huge amount of our lettuce is grown.

  The Imperial Valley evaporates water about as fast as we can reserve it.


The Imperial Valley evaporates water about as fast as we can reserve it.

A more holistic evaluation might even bring about a real conversation around the most convoluted of all California crops: alfalfa. Not only is this water-intensive crop getting exported, it's getting exported to feed meat that is then re-exported globally (including back to California). We recommend Alissa Walker's recent Gizmodo piece for more on that unique mess.

Is There Any Way Out?

So here we have this major powerhouse industry that has grown up around one big faulty assumption—unlimited water—and the math no longer adds up. With so many mouths to feed and livelihoods to support, it’s not like we can just altogether stop farming in California. So what in the world are we supposed to do?

It’s time our big agriculture system wisens up to our ecological reality. We need to grow food smarter, adjust to our microclimates, export less and build a stronger local food economy here and, ultimately, everywhere. This will be our biggest challenge by far, and we will closely follow food production in our parched state. Who’s ready plant their own tomatoes?


In our final installment of Drought 101, we’re going to talk solutions—from high-tech ways of using water for agriculture to how you can really eat in a more drought-friendly fashion. Stay tuned for our solutions rundown (spoiler alert: we think there’s hope.)