Context for journalists

Hello, journalist.  Here is some context that I wish journalists understood and presented.

On irrigated ag:

  • It takes about 3.5ft of water/season to finish most crops.  Precision irrigation can get the number down, but then the salt flushing requirements go up.  As a rule of thumb, you can convert between acre-feet and acres of irrigated land by dividing (or multiplying) by three (because rain often contributes a little).  100,000 acres of crops means 300,000AF water/season.
  • California has a bit more than 9 million irrigated acres.  If you need to understand context fast, round up to 10 million irrigated acres to get a percentage.  Acreages that sound like a lot (tens of thousands!!!!!!!!!) are a relatively small percent compared to ten million acres overall.
  • For the love of god, use the incredibly handy available data.  Frankly, if you are going to write about California water, you should already be subscribed to their crop reports.
  • According to USDA’s NASS data, here is how that 9 million irrigated acres looks:
    • 1.5+ million acres tree nuts
    • 1.1+ million acres fodder for dairy/meat
    • 1+ million acres grapes, mostly for wine, some for the table and raisins.
    • Top 24 market vegetables: less than 2 million irrigated acres.  When you say “California grows half the nation’s fruits and veggies”, it is important to note that it only takes about a third of California’s irrigated acreage to do that.
  • Furrow and flood irrigation are not inherently bad or old-fashioned irrigation methods.  Modern furrow irrigation techniques can have very high irrigation efficiencies.  All irrigation types can be well-managed or poorly managed; poor management can waste a whole lot of water with a drip irrigation system. It is the management, not the irrigation method, that matters.


  • When Australia’s drought hit and Australia had less water, what Australia DID was fallow and retire farmland.  That’s where the bulk of water demand is, and when water goes away, nations farm less.  Often journalists write about the Australian water market as if it were the result, or as if it prevented fallowing and retiring land.  It did not.
  • Gallons are a bullshit unit, useful only for gppd.  Never use million- or worse, billion-gallons.  Convert to acre-feet so people know what you’re talking about.
  • Never ever use the  ascribed-to-Twain quote or the word “lifeblood”.  Never.