Agriculture and Water in California (Part I: Issues of water use and conservation)

Photo credit: "A Rake, at Rest" by Tim Sackton:

by Patricia Quintero Estades

As the recent spate of wildfires around the state should remind us, California is still in the midst of its worst drought in recorded history. Water in California often becomes too scarce to support all of the state’s population and its economic activity—and this is made more dire by the existence of a rather large agricultural sector concentrated in the Central Valley. California is a massive agricultural supplier (⅔ of the country’s fruits and nuts) and a large portion of the state’s available water is allocated to agricultural uses.

Agricultural vs. environmental allocations for water use

Recently, most sources cite a water-use breakdown of 40% for agriculture, 10% for commercial and residential use, and the rest (50%) termed as “environmental” use. However, some scientists, such as Jeffrey Mount from UC Davis, warn that those figures and terms can be misleading. In the past, only water that was used directly by people for economic and residential activities was included in reports, with usage generally broken down as 80% agricultural, 20% urban use (residential and commercial).

This has caused two misconceptions. The first, that water that was allocated to agriculture is now being used for environmental purposes— when, in fact, there is just a larger pool of water being counted, thus the dramatic difference in percentages. Secondly, these environmental uses are only about preserving wildlife habitats (e.g., for small fish), putting the needs of other species before the livelihood of the farmers who need the water for sustenance.

“first snow on the merced river” by Chris Chabot:

In reality, most of the water allocated for environmental purposes is not in competition with agricultural activities, and its uses are varied and important as Mount explains in his blog post. The environmental water allocation that is now alluded to is mainly comprised of water that, for the most part, is inaccessible for urban uses. Additionally, this allocation also serves many important environmental and economic purposes such as maintaining water quality high enough for drinking. Not to mention, it also maintains an important source of economic activity in terms of tourism and recreation: California’s scenic rivers.

However you define it, it is safe to say that the agricultural use of water in California is more than substantial, and that raises a number of concerns. Challenging water conditions for farming in California make people question whether such a large agricultural operation should even exist in the state. Water is expensive to transport and, in times of drought, the state simply does not have enough water to sustain the same level of economic activity that happens during “wet” years. Agricultural use of water is also deeply linked to the state’s problem of groundwater depletion, which will be discussed more in depth in the following blog post of this water series.


In order to deal with water scarcity, without resorting to groundwater or cutting agricultural use, the state has moved to promote water conservation. Even though agriculture amounts to most of the water used directly by Californians, conservation efforts are mainly targeted towards urban uses (i.e., commercial and residential) as they are generally easier to implement; thus most effective (especially in the short term). Recent water conservation efforts in the state have been successful and in the long term, urban conservation has been effective as well, despite significant population growth. The per capita urban daily water use in the state used to be 232 gallons in 1995, and it went down to 178 in 2010, even before the drought started.

“Farms in Kern County along to the California Aqueduct, in the southern San Joaquin Valley” by Alfred Twu :

Conservation efforts in the agricultural sector have also made some significant advances with long-term solutions such as drip irrigation. The Department of Water Resources estimates that “low volume” methods of irrigation more than doubled amongst California farms from 1991 to 2010. However, in a 2014 study the Pacific Institute and the NRDC estimated that by adopting other water-cutting and efficiency strategies the agricultural sector could still stand to save about 6.6 billion acre-feet of water per year!

Another important question is whether there will be a shift to less water-intensive crops. While California is famous for its almonds and pistachios, nuts are incredibly water-intensive. As an example, a single almond can use as much as a gallon of water to be grown to maturity, as opposed to strawberries, which need about .4 gallons per unit. It would make sense to cultivate less “thirsty” crops in California in order to conserve water. However, this move is unlikely to occur unless there is a shift in demand from consumers, making these crops less financially attractive for farmers. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such a shift will occur. Consumers have tremendous influence over this issue, yet we often forget the power of our individual and collective actions.


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