Golf Course

Sprinklers water the grass at Gleneagles Golf Course on April 2, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Significant cuts in use will be imposed on cemeteries, golf courses and facilities with large landscapes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

By Jeff Guo
April 3, 2015

On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown took the unprecedented step of forcing urban water agencies to reduce their water use by 25 percent. Cities and towns are now prohibited from using more than three-quarters the amount of water they used in 2013. This will save an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet, or nearly 500 billion gallons of water, between now and February.

But what about farmers? In 2010, irrigated agriculture consumed four times as much water as urban users. The state could easily save the same amount of water if it required farms to increase water efficiency by about 5 percent.

But it’s not.

Of course, California is a huge farming state. If the Midwest is the nation’s breadbasket, California is our sprinkler garden. It produces two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. California makes more money off agriculture than any other state in the nation. In 2013, farmers sold almost $50 billion of food.

All of which sounds staggering until you realize that California is a $2 trillion economy. As many have pointed out, all the calls for urban water conservation seem puzzling. Is it worth squeezing the cities when farms consume 80 percent of the water that people use in California, while they generate only 2 percent of its economic activity?

There are political dimensions to this. The agricultural lobby is powerful and would resist a regime of forced water reductions. They argue that it’s illogical for a farmer to fallow his fields just so people in L.A. can have a green patch in front of their homes. Agriculture means jobs, and it supports a whole industry of processing and packing plants. (Though, to be fair, lawn care maintenance is also its own industry.)

Brown made the point on Wednesday that agriculture has borne the brunt of California’s drought, which is in its fourth year. There’s truth to this. Economists estimate that in 2014, the drought cost farmers about $2.2 billion through lost crops and increased water costs. They believe that the impact of the drought on the agricultural sector eliminated 17,100 jobs from the state economy.

Some have suffered much more than others. “The fact is that not all farmers are created equal in terms of their water supplies,” said Nancy Vogel, spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources. “Some are largely unaffected by the droughts and others are suffering and scrambling because they have precarious access to water.”

California has a complex system of water rights, which evolved from a system of first dibs instituted by its early settlers. In the Western states, where surface water can be scarce, early miners and farmers would dig channels to divert water from far-away streams. Often, the streams weren’t even on their property.

To read entire column, click here.