Unless you’ve been living in a cave as of late, you’ve probably heard about California’s water woes and Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order to cut water consumption by 25 percent, statewide. You also have probably heard he exempted farms, a move that has some Californians less than thrilled.
The effects of the historic, four-year drought are far-reaching, tough to swallow and affect more than you realize. The drought is even to blame for the newest social media trend sweeping California: #DroughtShaming.
Which leads to the one prevailing question I have: Is it fair to exempt farming, an industry which many media outlets quote as using 80 percent of all the water consumed in the state?
For those of us in the Midwest, or anywhere other than California for that matter, it’s easy to think, “That sucks for them, but what does that have to do with me? No drought here!” Well, that’s where the ‘far-reaching’ and ‘unexpected’ part of this comes into play.
Midwestern states are known for their plentiful production of corn and soybeans — food products that don’t always directly make it to your table. Instead, they’re used for seed, biofuels, or feed for livestock. You get that food product back eventually, but not in it’s raw form, straight from the field.
But where does the rest of the food we eat come from? As in, all the fruits and veggies you love to eat? You guessed it, the sunshine state. It makes the reasoning behind Gov. Brown’s decision to exempt farming easier to understand.
In fact, as this NPR article points out, that 80 percent statistic may not always reflect reality.
“Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have been the only ones to have their water actually completely cut off,” said Dave Puglia, senior vice president with the Western Growers Association.
Puglia likens the “zero percent allocations of water” that most of his growers will get to the ultimate kind of forced water conservation.
“I don’t know how you can ask farmers to conserve more than zero,” he says.
Still, opponents say the farm exemption is a tough pill to swallow, considering California agriculture accounts for only a small part of California’s $2 trillion economy — roughly 2 percent of the gross state product.
On the other hand, that 2 percent is still pretty big from a global perspective: California, if set apart from the U.S., would be one of the world’s ten biggest economies. Indeed, the industry is quick to point out that California now produces the bulk of the country’s fresh food supply, including lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and, yes, nuts.
Is there a fair way to divide up such a valuable resource among so many people — 38.8 million people to be exact? Right now, California’s water rights basically boil down to if you’re old, you’re gold. In other words, the earlier your land was irrigated, the more senior your water rights and the bigger bucket of the state’s remaining water you’ll receive. If your neighbor didn’t irrigate his land until recently, he might get nothing.
And what about the crops that California is growing? Some opponents of agricultural water use are proposing moving the state’s agricultural sector elsewhere in the U.S., saying water-intensive crops shouldn’t be grown in California in the first place. Unfortunately, that mentality disregards a couple pretty important points:
- Land availability. Last time I checked, land in the Midwest — well, everywhere, really — is already in use. We’re no longer in the frontier age where new land is being discovered. It’s been laid claim to and locked into a purpose. There is the possibility of some land already in use being converted to a new use, like growing fruits and nuts and vegetables, but what about the people already making a living off the land as it is? Or the people in California making a living off of their land?
- Climate. California is able to raise such a diverse supply of crops because of its Mediterranean-like climate. And, unfortunately, no other state in the union has a climate quite like it, making it the perfect place to grow some of the crops — like almonds — that you don’t see anywhere else.
I suppose all of this boils down to one thing, for me anyway: I get it. I understand why Gov. Brown decided to exclude farmers from the mandated water cuts. But I also think farmers shouldn’t consider themselves “off the hook.”
Drought or no drought, water isn’t an infinite resource. It takes time to replenish. And with a growing population, time isn’t something that will be easy to come by. Farmers are going to have to do their part to help conserve water, too. Some already have, which is a step in the right direction. And I have no doubt that farmers will continue to try to modify their water use. They’re a clever breed, after all. Always adapting to new technology and ways of doing things.