As the Drought Worsens, California Has to Make Some Tough Choices

California, Fresno, water crisis, drought, almonds, agriculture, farming, Leon Kaye, Los Angeles
Almond orchard in Madera County, California.

By many accounts, California’s reservoirs only have one year’s supply of water left. As a result, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency set of regulations earlier this month that it says can “safeguard” California’s remaining water supplies.

Now, hotels have to provide guests with an option to not have their towels and linens washed daily; restaurants can only serve water on request; and no, you cannot water your driveways and sidewalks anymore. Residents are also prohibited from washing their cars with a hose unless it has a shut-off nozzle; and do not even think about watering your landscaping during and 48 hours after there is any “measurable” precipitation.

True, California residents should be more water conscious, though many of them already are. Water consumption in Los Angeles, for example, is less than it was 30 years ago, even though the city has 1 million more residents. And it is ridiculous that areas with a dry climate boast luscious green lawns and annual flowers, such as Fresno, where I live. I do not have a monthly water bill because city regulations consider apartment buildings and condominium complexes to be “commercial buildings,” so there is little incentive to conserve water, which is absurd. The debate over California’s water crisis, therefore, often conjures images of swimming pools and excessive lawn watering. Why should we cut off water to farms so Angelinos can enjoy their posh swimming pools?

But even if all this were true, the fact remains that California’s agriculture sector consumes about 80 percent of the state’s water. True, the sector generates over US$40 billion in revenues, but that is only 2 percent of the state’s economy. So, what needs to be done?

Many observers target one particular crop: almonds. The perceived health benefits of almonds, which have sparked a new land rush within the state over the past 20 years, have sparked a surging business for some in the San Joaquin Valley. Many analysts point out the statistic that it takes one gallon of water to produce one single almond. Not everyone agrees it is fair to target almonds, however, and naturally orchard owners beg to differ. They reply with statistics that show other crops consume vast amounts of water. One fact that cannot be denied is that the almond industry is booming, with its export value increasing by almost 50 percent between 2008 and 2011.

It seems unthinkable to turn off the faucet on a food that tastes good, is healthful and packs an economic punch, but that punch is going to disappear for everyone if California’s drought continues and no real solutions emerge on the horizon. With this year’s snowpack only 12 percent 6 percent of normal levels, the state has to make some difficult choices.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards use about 9 percent of the state’s water, which is about the same amount for the combined needs of residents of the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas. And these two regions within California carry the state’s economy, between high tech, logistics, entertainment, aerospace and many other industries. If Los Angeles County alone were a country, it would have a larger economy than that of Sweden or Switzerland. Some residents argue that with 80 percent of California’s almonds exported abroad (most to Asia, which has become nuts about almonds), we are basically exporting water abroad for the benefit of just a handful of growers.

Meanwhile farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are drilling deeper and deeper for groundwater, the total amount of which is unknown, but of course is finite. Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a US$25 billion underground water project that will divert water from the Sacramento River to Southern California via two underground tunnels, but residents might balk at the annually debut servicing costs resulting from that plan. Environmentalists point out the risk that the tunnels would pose to the San Francisco Bay’s ecosystems, and residents of the Southland would pay higher water bills while big agriculture would allegedly still pay low rates.

The questions Californians need to ask is: Should we divert a massive amount of water from one region and wreck its local economy and environment for the profits of a few farmers growing a non-essential crop? Or should we incentivize farmers to grow crops that are still in demand, but are not as taxing on the state’s water supplies and infrastructure?

**The author corrected the snowpack figure from 12 percent (which was based on various news sources), to 6 percent, based on the California Department of Water Resources figures.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).