On a recent trip to California, I visited the North Coast, where spring usually means green hills with deep grass, strewn with lupine and bright orange poppies bobbing in sea breezes.
This year, we found stunted grass, browning hills and the local news obsessing over the worst drought in California's recorded history. Suddenly, the most populous state in the country faces a harsh reality, with water shortages threatening all aspects of life, from the economy, to our food supply, to the very livability of our homes.
Holed up in Bodega Bay, I heard Gov. Jerry Brown on the radio talking about mandatory water-use restrictions for California's 39 million people. Brown usually can be counted on to take on issues realistically, yet when asked if he would restrict the amount of water that goes to agriculture, he demurred. Agriculture had suffered enough already, he said.
While we are all grateful to farmers and farm workers—including those in the eastern Coachella Valley—for producing the food we crave, the tough reality of severe drought should compel us to take a closer look at agricultural water use. In America's entrepreneurial environment, we're not used to asking hard questions about legal private-sector activity, but this severe and lingering drought—not only in California, but also throughout the West—could, and should, force a serious debate about private-sector use of public water supplies. It is long overdue.
This may be an uncomfortable process for politicians who will have to consider a difficult balance: water supplies for cities versus water for rural industries, including ones that may not be able to survive in a drying region.
Here are the cold facts: Cities in California use between 10 to 20 percent of the state's developed water, producing 98 percent of its gross domestic product, while agriculture uses 80 percent of the water supply—and produces only 2 percent of the state's GDP. And of the 80 percent that agriculture uses, only a portion is used for crops that directly feed people.
We could drill down deeper and see who is using water and for what, but this is where politicians start squirming, given that farmers produce both crops and campaign contributions. The majority of Colorado River water and agricultural water in California goes to producing feed for cattle—low-value crops like alfalfa and hay. Those crops use 14 million acre-feet of water a year, which is far more than what is used by water-intensive crops like rice, cotton or wine grapes.
Alfalfa is a huge water-waster largely because of its high rates of evapotranspiration, as well as the overall inefficiency of flood irrigation, the main means of watering the crops. Seventy percent of California's alfalfa goes to dairies, which use more than 700 gallons of water per cow, per day, in facilities that have hundreds of cows, usually located in arid parts of the state. The 500,000 beef cattle in California require between 400 and 2,500 gallons of water for each pound of meat, depending on who supplies your statistics.
Of course, California is not the only area facing a drought. In the Rio Grande Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, the same pattern of alfalfa and hay production for desert dairies and feedlots depletes ground and surface water, leaving cities, wildlife and recreation chasing ever lower flows on this iconic river. According to The New York Times, livestock production uses 75 percent of Colorado River flows, which currently are 15 percent lower than they were in 1990—and dropping. Statistics for the Rio Grande are similar.
How do we handle a commercial interest that disproportionately burdens the public water supply? The dairy and beef industries, and forage growers, provide some jobs, but their high water consumption threatens many other crops and businesses—employing far more people—as well as domestic water-users who depend on water for survival.
In 1983, the California Supreme Court, in the case National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, ruled that water falls under the public trust doctrine, which says that important public resources are so fundamental to society that courts can impose restrictions when private development threatens public use. The court applied the public trust doctrine to water that had been appropriated under state law, ruling that those appropriations were contrary to the public interest.
If politicians remain unwilling to confront wasteful use of our public water supplies, it might be time to bring a case to the courts.
Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in New Mexico.