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 The voice of California's rivers

Where Did The Water Go?

Guy Saperstein, Capital River Awards Honoree & Corley Phillips, FOR Board Chair
 
The recent front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle ("Drought penalties---cut use or pay up," May 18), is a good example of how distorted the discussion of water allocation has become. The article is about local communities who are considering imposing mandatory limits on water consumption, including penalties. Missing in the article---and missing in nearly all articles published in California newspapers---is any informed discussion about how water is actually used in California.
Individuals in California use very little water. Urban use—including commercial and industrial consumption—accounts for about 20% of water usage in California and personal consumption is just a fraction of that. So, there is only so much we as individuals can do by turning the water off while brushing your teeth or taking shorter showers.
 
Who is using California's water? Approximately 80% of all the water used in California goes to agriculture, which might be OK if they used it well, but, in fact, they waste most of it.
 
The biggest agricultural crop consumer of water in California is alfalfa, which consumes nearly two trillion gallons of water each year and mainly is used to feed cows. OK, people need to eat, right?
 
But most of California's alfalfa crop is exported to China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates to feed cows. So, in effect, we are exporting billions of gallons of water to China while telling people in Livermore and Pleasanton, who use minuscule amounts of water, not to use too much water brushing their teeth!
 
Drive down I-5 in the middle of summer in 100+ degree weather and you will see huge sprinklers spraying water in the middle of the day and fields being flooded, in the process losing huge amounts of water to evaporation. Very few crops and very little acreage is watered with drip irrigation in California compared to other arid regions of the world.
 
The extravagant waste of California water by California agriculture is the result of cheap water, water subsidized by state and federal water projects begun more than 50 years ago. When water is cheap and the state is willing to continue building expensive water infrastructure like viaducts and tunnels, there is little incentive for California agri-business to do anything but continue to feed California politicians.
California Water UseAn article from the Wall Street Journal written by water experts Peter Culp and Robert Glennon explain what happens in an industry which receives excessive subsidies: In 2012, the drought-stricken Western United States will ship more than 50 billion gallons of water to China. This water will leave the country embedded in alfalfa---most of it grown in California---and is destined to feed Chinese cows. The strange situation illustrates what is wrong about how we think, or rather don't think, about water policy in the U.S.
 
This situation needs to change and California water needs to be managed more rationally. The starting point is providing Californians with accurate information about how water is used and abused by California agri-business, not continuing to focus on individual water usage.

Guy Saperstein is one of America’s most influential civil rights and environmental class action lawyers and the former President of The Sierra Club Foundation. "The Getaway Guide to the John Muir Trail," Guy's story of backpacking the 236-mile John Muir Trail with his youngest son, won the Gold Award for Best Guidebook in 2006 from the Society of American Travel Writers.

Corley Phillips is Chairman of the Board of Friends of the River, which for over 40 years has worked to preserve, protect, and restore California’s rivers and their watersheds.


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