The drought in California has been getting steadily worse as the snow caps shrink and water consumption rises, resulting in a theme of cracking down on water waste for the past few months. Yes, millions of gallons are being wasted by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and yes, having huge golf courses in the middle of a desert probably isn’t the best idea, but even those huge sinks of water usage pale in comparison to the water used by agriculture in California.
Gov. Jerry Brown has been asking California residents to conserve water, even using the threat of fines to discourage wasteful water practices. However, the problem isn’t that California residents cannot conserve more water, but that California residents aren’t the main uses of water in California by a long shot.
According to Blaine Hanson from the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources at UC Davis, 80% of California’s water is used in farming, and the majority of the water isn’t even being used on high-value produce that struggles to grow in many other places, such as almonds, pistachios, and kiwis. Instead, alfalfa and corn dominate the water usage charts.
Livestock is an even worse culprit. According to the National Geographic, each pound of beef requires, on average, 1,799 gallons of water per pound. This means the average cow slaughtered for meat takes around 2,536,490 gallons of water to raise. Considering around 130 thousand cattle are sent to the slaughterhouse every month in California, about 3.5 billion gallons of water are used to raise cattle every month putting the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’s five million gallons of wasted water to shame.
To put this in perspective, the average Californian household uses 131,400 gallons of water in a year, meaning each cow raised in California could be used to provide a years’ worth for water to 19 households, and the water used to raise the number of cattle that are slaughtered each month could provide water to about 26,600 houses for a year.
Furthermore, despite a huge reduction of 20% of some farmer’s water, some are on old contracts that promise 40% or 75% of their normally allotted water. Even worse are the farmers that have grandfathered flat-rate water plans, many of which aren’t even metered, meaning they are unaffected by the limits on water usage and by the rising water prices.
Finally, agriculture makes up only 2% of California’s total GDP, according to the US Department of Commerce, so it isn’t like California’s agriculture is empowering its economy.
So, while the residents of California are being bombarded by a quickly rising price of water and requests by the governor to reduce water consumption by 20%, the real problem, agriculture, is protected by old contracts that give water freely.