In Drought-Stricken California, How Much Water Does Agriculture Use?

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Agriculture consumes about 40 percent of the state's water, or 80 percent of water available for human use. Critics question the viability of growing water-intensive crops like almonds and rice, but others argue the state's water woes are too complex to pin on a single industry. In the first installment of Forum's Drought Watch series, we look at agriculture's water consumption and conservation practices, and how the industry may need to adapt to a hotter and drier climate.

Show Highlights

On the Debate Over How Much Water Ag Uses

"If you ask 'Of all the water that falls on California, how much of that is that used in agriculture?' The answer is 40 percent. That's just arithmetic -- it's just how much is used in agriculture, how much falls on the state. I don't dispute that if you take some of that water and say 'Well, we're not going to count it.' In his last sentence the congressman no longer said 'water' he said 'developed water.' Well, now we can quibble about what we mean by 'developed.'

"When you and I were kids, Michael, the water that we now say is used for 'environment' we used to call 'wasted.' We didn't even count it. And so for years and years we used the figure 80 percent to describe agricultural water because we were only counting half the water in the state. Now, I agree immediately -- is there some water maybe we won't count because nobody's ever going to get access to use it very much. If you go to the far north corner of California [there are] incredible amounts of water and we're not going to pump that either to Marin County or into the Sacramento Valley -- it's over a mountain range, it's too hard to use. We also value that water. Anybody who's ever been up to that part of the world -- it's wonderful, partly because there's so much water that's completely untamed rushing out to the Pacific. Do we ignore that and call that 'not water'? For some purposes.

"But I wouldn't want to politicize those numbers. It really is the case that we now -- you and I and everybody else in California -- we don't call swamps 'swamps' we call them 'wetlands.' We really value that water that's running to the sea and that's why I think it's appropriate to count it. We do know how much water goes into agriculture, roughly, and we know what we use in urban and there's no question most of the developed actively-used water by humans in California goes to agriculture." - Dan Sumner


Dan Sumner, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis and director of the Agricultural Issues Center for the University of California

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau

Jared Huffman, U.S. congressman representing the 2nd District of California

Adam Scow, California director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group


On the Impact on Farmers

"I'm pulling out 10 acres of walnuts that are still very productive and still could cash flow but with 16 inches of water, I can't get by. I've ordered two wells. We don't have wells here because we've really always had a very reliable supply out of the reservoir. The water that's in that reservoir, through regulatory fiat has now been taken and given to environmental flows and so we don't have access to it. We made it through six dry years between '88 and '93 and did not have these kind of restrictions. We're not allowed to buy one more inch than 16 inches. ... There are folks in the Central Valley that are getting zero. So Michael, my big thing is, how many people are going to have to refinance their home because of a 25 percent cut in their water that they're going to put on their lawn or use in their house. I doubt, anybody." - Paul Wenger

On Sending Water to San Francisco

I hope everybody understands where their water comes from -- through the Hetch Hetchy. Three pipelines go through our property and that is the purest water that goes over into the Bay Area lakes that then deliver into the San Francisco Bay Area and so as we start looking at other folks, maybe we ought to put some of that water down the river and let it flush through the river for the fish and pull it out of this going by San Francisco. But when I mentioned that to the folks before with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission they go 'That would drive up the cost of our water.' Arguably some of the most expensive real estate in the state is in San Francisco, a beautiful town. I love visiting there. You fill your toilet bowls with cleaner water than I drink here in the valley." - Paul Wenger

On Growing Almonds in California

"[Growing almonds is] very lucrative, that's why people are doing it. You can understand that if the water was there lots of folks would love to bring new acreage into almond production. You can make a lot of money doing that but you shouldn't be doing it in places where the water's not available and certainly not in places where there's groundwater overdraft. So what I'm suggesting and what I suggested in that speech was let's at least start asking some of those hard questions -- my God if we're asking all of this sacrifice from urban areas all over the state let's look at this the 8.3 million new almond trees that were planted during this drought. Permanent crops that cannot be fallowed. And let's ask 'Do they have available water supplies?'" - Congressman Jared Huffman

On Wanting More Water Regulation

"The problem is that California's water house is out of order. We've over-promised our water rights. It's led to gross imbalances, poor business decisions and we're seeing now abuses of our ground water where we've lost 8 million acre feet of ground water in just the last three years according to NASA. This is completely unsustainable and the system is out of balance.

"I disagree with [Congressman Jared Huffman's] comments earlier that the ag industry needs to police themselves. That's unrealistic. What we need is Governor Brown and the State Water Board to start managing directly. There's no magic position on pricing. We have a certain amount that nature supplies. The baseline is totally unrealistic especially now with climate change. In the hotter temperatures we're seeing different precipitation patterns. We have to get that reality to our water supply and have responsible allocations. This is not an easy process but it needs to happen now and we need to start having some sensible limits on groundwater management and groundwater pumping.


"I think long term we need to question the responsibility of planting an almond and pistachio empire in the desert-like climate on the west side. Just because there's a market for doesn't mean it's a good idea and it's responsible for it for our water use long term. Indeed, it was a public decision to put that land into production to begin with. It was a controversial decision. So it's a public decision on what's appropriate to be grown there. It's really our money. And if California's water so we need to see some real management from Governor Brown." - Adam Scow