I’m not done with Water Rights. I am STILL THINKING.

On the one hand, I’m pleased when bright people from outside Water take a crack at offering solutions.  Maybe they can question the basic assumptions that insiders have grown so used to that they don’t even see their biases any more.  On the other hand, this is pretty painful to read.  I love the realization that eating California produce is eating embedded sunshine and water.  I love the suggestion that other states take on more row crop production; spreading around our food production will add to resiliency in the face of climate change.  But Philpott doesn’t mention the extraordinarily large elephant.  I’m afraid he didn’t even see it.  He somehow managed to look up a bunch of ag statistics and miss the field crops and cattle industry. 

Remember? (pg14)  Field crops (grains to be fed to cattle for milk and beef) use about 60% of the applied water in the state, on about half the irrigated acreage in the state.  Those field crops go through cattle; by the time the meat is food, the water content in that meal is another order of magnitude more wasteful.  (slides 10-12)   The meat and dairy industry’s demand for more than half the irrigation water in the state makes it sensitive to drought, as you see in articles about thinning herds and insufficient feed.  (ht Aquafornia)

Truly, the water demands of California row crops are not the problem for which musing bloggers need to suggest solutions (like an area of origin tax).  That’s not where the huge gains can come from or even an inefficient use of water.  Reducing in-state meat production is the arena with huge potential for freeing up water1.    My first hope would be that people would eat drastically less meat.  My second is that they would only eat pasture-finished meat, of which California cannot produce nearly as much as it does grain-finished meat.  My third is that the Great Plains would return to grazing large herds, if people must eat lots of meat.  My final, futile hope is that people who blog about California water would ask me questions first.  I am doomed to tilt.







1 Not because field crops are necessarily inefficiently irrigated or inherently require a lot of water.  Because growing field crops for meat and dairy production is the majority of our agland use and feeding them to cattle intensifies embedded water tenfold.


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4 responses to “I’m not done with Water Rights. I am STILL THINKING.

  1. I’m not against diversifying our produce growing regions, but maybe the California situation is not quite so grave. I would also be curious to see a breakdown of those percentages showing how much is grown in areas other than the Central Valley, i.e. Imperial Valley. It seems to me the main problem in the CV is that some of the water rights supplying certain districts are fairly junior (Westlands) because other areas are receiving plenty of water, notwithstanding the smelt. Imperial Valley is reliant on the Colorado River, which has its own problems, but the IID rights are the most senior in that system so would theoretically be among the last to be cut during major shortages.

  2. ScottB

    Can you or someone tell me about the _root_ of this problem (no pun intended)? _Why_ is it that we grow fruit and veg in CA and monocrop corn throughout the midwest? I have heard that when farms were smaller (pre-WWII), much fruit and veg was grown in the midwest.

    Yes, there is a bias here because the pseudo-libertarian narrative about this has to do with gov’t subsidies for corn and grains after WWII leading to monocropping in the midwest and driving fruit and veg production elsewhere. But honestly, I’m slim on facts for that tale. And I’m not heavily invested in that story either, but it’s the only one I’ve heard. So if you or one of your Gentle Readers knows, I’d love to understand how we got to this CA-centric fruit-and-veg situation.

    Is it gov’t intervention? Is it growth of large farms and efficiency issues? Were transportation costs low enough that shipping things across the country didn’t really matter?

    You can argue that this is moot, but I think figuring out how we got here (and maybe even knowing what we did before) might inform possible solutions…


  3. onthepublicrecord

    No, I don’t think it is moot at all and I don’t get it. This is to my own discredit, because I haven’t followed Great Plains agriculture at all. But I have the vague sense that there used to be truck farms around Chicago. Gene Logsdon writes convincingly about Ohio non-corn ag. I took History of Agribusiness in undergrad. I should know more than I do.

    Veggies/fruits in CA is easy to understand. My guess is that the comparative advantage of getting a second season in each year won out over veggies in the Plains once freight became cheap. Also, for all that they were abused, the water project’s limits on farm size did mean that farms in CA didn’t aggregate as much as (I believe) they do on the Plains. More farmers made more choices about what to plant? Oh yeah. There was also pretty wide ethnic variety among growers in CA, who might have brought along preferences for growing different things.

    That’s a super excellent question, ScottB. I wish I knew the answer. I wish I had a better concept of a tipping point, where farms in the Plains figure out that they could do better selling pretty tomatoes to Chicago. Freight costs? Decreased CA production? The guy at Greed, Greens and Grains might know. I just started reading him. I should ask him.

    Why the Plains moved so solidly into subsidized grain and soybean monoculture? I’ve heard of a treadmill effect, in which it takes larger and larger farms to support the half-million dollar costs of the huge machines that plant and harvest corn. I can’t swear that is the reason, though.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    Chris, as you read along here, you’ll realize how very little I know and talk about Imperial. When people say things like “Central Valley compares to Imperial” or “this important point about Imperial”, I pretty much hear “blah blah blah Ginger.” Of course you are right that they’re important, but I don’t have the courage to start learning about the Colorado system. I’m a CVP and SWP kind of blogger myself.