I see this quote everywhere; today’s example is from here.
California’s drought is especially worrisome because the state produces about one-half of the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. It is the No.1 agricultural state in the U.S.
The valuable information that never accompanies this quote is: how much of California’s irrigated acreage does it take to produce half the country’s truck crops? How much acreage would have to be fallowed in drought before any of those fruit, vegetables and nuts are lost to U.S. consumers?
Here are some tables from U.C. Davis’s Agricultural Issues Center that give a rough idea. (For the rest of what I put here, I’ll concede rounding and back-of-the-envelope estimates. If I am wrong by five or ten percent, it’ll still give us a sense of proportion.) This is 2011 data. Straight off the top, about 15% of California’s agricultural produce is shipped to the rest of the world. (http://giannini.ucop.edu/CalAgBook/Chap3.pdf, pg 62, says 16% to 19% in the 90’s). But Table 1 says 14%. Let’s say 15% so the math is easy. There are roughly 9 million irrigated acres in CA.
9m acres * 0.15 = 1,350,000 acres of production exported
If more than a million irrigated acres went out of production, the U.S. could still have all of the fruits, vegetables and nuts it now consumes.
If we start looking at different crops, I find the drought less and less worrisome. Back to Table 1, which says that 0.64 of all almonds produced go to overseas markets.
800,000 acres of almonds * 0.64 = 512,000 acres of almonds exported.
If 500,000 acres of almonds went out of production, the ag sector would lose quite a bit of money. But the U.S. would lose not a single almond that it currently eats. Table 3 shows you where those almonds go. A third of them go to Europe. I am sure that if California could not provide Europe with almonds, Spain, Turkey and Iran would be delighted to help them out. I am also sure that if Europe could consume no almonds at all, it would not be the Siege of Leningrad. People have gone without almonds for their entire lives and still found meaning in their existence.
Table 1 says that half of pistachios and walnuts are sent overseas (55%); Table 3 says they go to Europe and China. Combined acreage of pistachios (250,000 acres) and walnuts (about 250,000) is 500,000 acres. We could lose half of that (back down to 250,000 acres) without endangering the U.S. supply.
Let’s do grapes! 850,000 acres of grapes; 0.27 exported out of the country (Table 1), one third of those to Canada (Table 3).
850,000 acres of grapes * 0.27 = approx 230,000 acres of grape exported.
230,000 acres of grapes * 3 af/acre = little more than 0.6MAF.
It would not go down in the annals of human tragedies if Canadians got no more Californian wines. This would not give me a single second’s worry about food security.
A third of dried beans grown in California and half of the rice grown in California are exported. You know what? I think that’s great! Those are important food staples that provide direct protein and calories to humans. I am not anti-everything ag. But if we are growing 750,000 acres of nuts for the rest of the world, then we’re shipping 2.25MAF/year of water away in the form of pleasant snacks. Fuck that.
I am the most parochial person you know, and were it up to me, I wouldn’t be providing lettuce to places east of the Sierras either. Y’all have the entire Great Plains to work with; I am sure you could figure something out if California decided we’d rather have our ecosystems than send you cheap blueberries. I understand that my views are in the minority. But rough estimates are enough to convey that irrigated acreage in California (9 million acres) has perhaps 1.5 million to 2 million acres of slack before important food crops for human consumption in the U.S. are threatened.
ADDED: For perspective, the regulars at UC Davis say:
Still, statewide overdraft is estimated diversely to average between 500,000 acre-feet a year to more than 1.5 million acre-feet a year
We send more water embedded in almonds, walnuts and pistachios overseas than we overdraft from the San Joaquin Valley aquifers every year.