As a result of pandemic stimulus packages, progressive tax structures and a recovering economy, California has an enormous discretionary budget surplus of more than $75 billion — an amount larger than the entire budget of most states. With Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature and a Democratic governor, politicians and activists are moving quickly to fund a variety of programs aimed at helping people struggling during the pandemic, addressing homelessness, expanding Medicaid and preparing for what experts say will likely be another record fire season.
Overshadowing all of this is the upcoming recall election of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom is likely using many of these surplus programs to gain political goodwill with voters through programs such as direct stimulus checks and rental assistance. Relying on flashy, popular programs is a great campaign strategy, but it often means important issues that aren’t often in the news cycle don’t get addressed, and unique opportunities for investment and change are wasted. One of those issues is California’s relationship with water.
California has chronic issues with water, and an exceptionally large population coupled with the climate crisis has exacerbated those issues. This year, California only got half of its average rainfall — the second consecutive dry year and the third driest year in more than a century. With mandatory drought restrictions likely to return this summer and millions of acres of forests, woodlands and riparian areas threatened by drought, one would expect the agriculture industry to be struggling as well.
Yet a recently released report showed that, in 2020, California almond growers enjoyed a record harvest from a crop that is notoriously water-intensive. In fact, the state’s agriculture industry uses 4 times the amount of water as businesses and homes. Lobbying from the industry also means farms often get exemptions and waivers from water use restrictions, which is what makes it possible to grow incredibly water-intensive crops such as almonds, alfalfa and even rice in one of the hottest and driest places in the country. As droughts become more common and more severe, the balance of water access in California is becoming untenable.
California water distribution is dramatically influenced by entrenched political and economic relationships among growers, state lawmakers and business leaders. Through damming and draining projects in the late 19th century, the Central Valley was converted from wetlands to agriculture fields that required irrigation. This transformation of the landscape was a vast display of political and economic power, and it cemented large farmers as some of the most influential people in state politics, guaranteeing them access to critical water resources even after they created the conditions that necessitated irrigation.
But as the decades went on, California’s economy grew and diversified away from agriculture. In 2018, agriculture generated less than 3% of the state’s gross domestic product. But even as the economy shifted, political relationships have not, and many of the same policies and practices that give large farmers unfair access to vast reserves of water are still in place. This access comes at the expense of the people and ecosystems of California.
During the drought of 2011-2017, cities and state agencies were forced to spend billions of dollars on drought mitigation measures, hundreds of thousands of endangered salmon were killed swimming through shallow rivers and tens of millions of trees died. Yet farmers were able to irrigate their fields largely without restriction. There is a fundamental disconnect between the resources given to the agriculture industry and the benefit it provides to California; that relationship needs to be rethought as the consequences become more severe.
But rethinking the role of agriculture in California doesn’t have to mean getting rid of it. Even though the industry doesn’t directly contribute much to the state’s GDP, it does indirectly support millions of jobs in distribution, sales and food service, and food needs to be grown regardless of how profitable it is. So, what if instead, we changed what foods are grown in California, shifting away from water-intensive crops such as almonds and alfalfa and toward more drought-adapted crops such as beans, broccoli and Anasazi corn?
We know that investing in drought-resilient infrastructure systems works. Cities and urban centers have been able to significantly reduce water demand through subsidy, rebate and retrofit programs. San Diego, for example, has reduced its water consumption to about 30% below 1990 levels, a monumental savings of more than a million acre-feet of water. By investing money now — when we have the cash and a political mandate — we can fast-track these prevailing economic trends and significantly reduce our water dependence without sacrificing the livelihoods and economic contributions of California’s farmers.
California has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the political-economic and physical landscape of the state to better suit its population without sacrificing one of the most productive agricultural regions in the Western Hemisphere. Because the reality is, if we don’t adapt to climate change now on our terms, we will be forced to adapt on much less advantageous terms once the water begins to run out. The economic, social and environmental forces are there — we just need a cash infusion to speed up these trends and reshape the California landscape for the betterment of all.