California’s drought: the meat of the matter

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AUGUST 10, 2015

“No snow whatsoever,” reads the official California Department of Water Resources’ report of the April 1 measurements at the Phillips snow course 90 miles east of Sacramento. The Sierra snowpack, which during normal years provides 30 percent of California’s water, is at its lowest level since 1950. These numbers mean a lot more than just a canceled ski trip to Tahoe this spring.

Neither this finding nor Gov. Jerry Brown’s order for a 25 percent decrease in statewide municipal water consumption is an April fool’s joke. The drought that has ravaged California for almost four years has finally gone from being an issue expressed only by  public bathroom posters to becoming an environmental crisis that has residents of the Golden State preparing for “the worst.”

What does the governor’s order mean for the average Californian? Well, if you’re building a new home, you’ll need to install a drip-irrigation system for any landscaping needs. You’ll continue to have to do without the vibrant green lawns and golf courses of Palm Springs. You should also break out the Excel spreadsheet, as your family’s utilities budget will probably need a makeover in the wake of water agencies’ new pricing structure.

Take a second look at the mandate and you’ll have noticed a curious exemption from this new round of water regulations — what Adam Scow, the director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, called the “elephant in the room.”

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California’s water consumption. Providing nearly half the domestic supply of fruits and vegetables, California’s agricultural sector is one of the largest on Earth. Critics of Brown’s mandate are quick to point out that agricultural water use was spared any cutback. It’s difficult for the people of Hollywood or Silicon Valley to feel like their 3-minute showers are counting for anything more than a drop in the bucket when they know that their everyday water use accounts for less than a quarter of the state’s total resources.

On the other hand, some 17,000 farmworkers are out of work amid reductions in water allotments from state and federal agencies. Rising water prices and 400,000 acres of fallow farmland cost farmers an estimated $1.5 billion last year. So how do you further reduce agricultural water supplies?

As Joel Nelsen, the president of California Citrus Mutual, frankly asked, “How do you take a reduction below zero?”

To answer his question, both agricultural and personal choices have to change. Consumers need to accept fundamental modifications to behavior that go beyond neglecting the backyard’s tulips. A closer look at California’s agricultural sector reveals that the most irrigated crop is alfalfa.

Useless for human consumption, this grass serves one purpose: to feed cows. The most water-intensive crop in California’s agricultural portfolio is farmed en masse for the ultimate purpose of supplying consumers with meat and dairy products.

To the dismay of bacon-loving environmentalists everywhere, veganism is a tangible part of the solution to California’s water crisis. The amount of water needed to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of animal protein is 100 times what is needed to produce the same amount of grain protein. In other words, 1 pound of California beef requires about the same amount of water you would use taking an average-length shower. Every day. For six months.

If consumer demand for meat and dairy products in California were reduced, alfalfa farming would naturally decline. Less water would be needed for agriculture, likely sparing farmers the financial stress of mandated regulations.

It’s clear that there is no single solution to the most severe drought in the history of our state. In part, this is because individual solutions aren’t suited for collective problems (read climate change and industrial agricultural practices). But there are many steps consumers and agricultural providers can take to help conserve California’s water. The best ones are those that reinforce the other. Given that agriculture is a primary reservoir of California’s water allocation and that residents are the consumers of those water-intensive agricultural products, it makes sense to change consumptive practices. Brown’s mandate doesn’t mention agriculture or personal dietary choices, but it should.

Without counting the cheese, the Double-Double In-N-Out burger you grabbed on the way home from work required more than 600 gallons of water to produce. Keep in mind that as you hop out of the shower, smiling because you cut your usual shower time in half, you would need to forgo an additional 38 showers to offset the burger still digesting in your stomach. A veggie burger looks like better insurance for next year’s trip to Tahoe than turning off the sprinklers.

Contact Amelia Sadler at 


AUGUST 10, 2015