While the big news was Governor Brown’s Wednesday announcement of the first mandatory water restrictions in state history after reports that the snowpack is at a remarkable 5 percent of normal, the question is whether it is too little, too late, and misses the key factors contributing to the crisis.
As the Bee put in an editorial: “Brown is to be commended for heeding the alarm bells. But California’s response to this slow-motion natural disaster has been nerve-wrackingly tentative until now.”
As the Bee points out, “The timeline on the groundwater management legislation passed last year was so, well, watered down by agriculture lobbyists that communities don’t even have to have a plan for sustainable water management until 2020, or achieve it until 2040.”
The LA Times notes that, while Governor Brown’s drought restrictions focus on urban water use, agriculture is the biggest water user – by far. Urban water use is less than 25 percent of California’s overall water use, and that includes lawns, parks and golf courses.
The Times writes, “It’s ineffective policy to crack down on watering suburban yards while largely ignoring the vast, still-green expanses of the state’s fruit and vegetable garden.”
Jonas Minton, who is water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League and a former state water official, argued that “state officials should clamp down on groundwater pumping and plantings of thirsty new crops.”
However, others believe “that agriculture has already suffered severe cutbacks as a result of the drawn-out drought, now in its fourth year. For the second year in a row, Central Valley farmers without senior water rights are expecting no deliveries from the valley’s big federal irrigation project.
“Growers who get supplies from the State Water Project will receive only 20% of requested deliveries this year. Farmers left more than 400,000 acres unplanted last year, dealing a $2-billion blow to the state’s agricultural economy.”
“I think much of California is all of a sudden waking up to the fact that the drought is not theoretical. It’s going to manifest itself in ordinary Californians’ lives for the first time. Well, our farmers have been feeling it for a while,” said Chris Scheuring, a water attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The Times reports, “Agricultural mandates were fewer and milder. Irrigation districts were directed to develop drought management plans that include supply and demand data. Agencies in basins where groundwater has been overpumped must immediately monitor groundwater levels. And the State Water Resources Control Board was told to crack down on illegal water diversions and ‘those engaging in the wasteful and unreasonable use of water.’”
The Times cites Jeffrey Mount at the PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) who told them that “growers have been dealing with water cutbacks for years.” He said, “It’s our view that government probably is not going to do a very good job of deciding what should and should not be grown.”
Others note that 40 percent of residential water use in the state is for landscaping, therefore “urban cuts don’t have the same economic impact as slashing irrigation deliveries.”
Still, the discrepancy is alarming. Mother Jones reported back in January that California almonds use as much water in one year as Los Angeles uses in three years.
But the problem is, the almond market, which was at $1.2 billion in 2002 was quadruple that at $4.8 billion by 2012. According to the article, “One reason is that the average American now eats two pounds of the crunchy snack per year—more than twice as much as a decade ago. But the biggest demand is coming from abroad: The US now exports 70 percent of almonds.”
The problem is that nuts are probably not the crop best suited for California. “Nuts use a whole lot of water: it takes about a gallon of water to grow one almond, and nearly five gallons to produce a walnut. “
The article notes, “Residents across the state are being told to take shorter showers and stop watering their lawns, but the acreage devoted to the state’s almond orchards have doubled in the past decade. The amount of water that California uses annually to produce almond exports would provide water for all Los Angeles homes and businesses for almost three years.”
How much damage are they doing? Mother Jones notes, “The center of almond farming—and the farming of lots of the US’s fruits and veggies—is exactly where the worst, the most extreme drought is taking place. To make up for the water shortage, farmers are pumping groundwater—the underground water that feeds aquifers, serving as a savings account of sorts for the state’s water supply.”
Those are the same regulations that have been pushed over for 5 to 30 years.
And it’s not just nuts and agriculture getting questioned.
Reuters this week reports, “Nestlé is wading into what may be the purest form of water risk. A unit of the $243 billion Swiss food and drinks giant is facing populist protests for bottling and selling perfectly good water in Canada and drought-stricken California.”
The company argues, “It does nothing harmful in the watersheds where it operates.”
The article reports, “The Swiss firm drew 50 million gallons from Sacramento sources last year, less than half a percent of the Sacramento Suburban Water District’s total production. It amounts to about 12 percent of residential water use, though, and is just shy of how much water flows from home faucets in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, Nestlé may be bottling more than locals drink from the tap.”
The article, on the other hand, notes, “Consumers can only blame themselves, of course, for buying so much bottled water. The average price for a gallon is $1.21, according to the International Bottled Water Association. For just $1.60, Californians could purchase 1,000 gallons of tap water, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
“Moreover, Nestlé’s water business is its smallest and least profitable, generating a trading operating profit last year of 10.3 percent – less than half that of its powdered and liquid beverages unit. With California imposing a 25 percent cut on residential water use, Nestlé Waters may want to consider turning off its own taps.”
The bottom line is rather obvious – California’s water concerns are likely to take a huge economic toll and part of the problem has been officials being very slow to address this issue. Now it is unavoidable.
—David M. Greenwald reporting