Farming in drought-stricken California is exhausting the state’s already limited water resources

In Opinion

courtesy_stdGov. Brown’s latest executive order asks California residents to cut their water use by 25 percent—although an important first step, it fails to meet the true culprit of excessive water use in the state.

Green lawns in a drought-stricken state are making matters worse, but are ultimately a drop in the bucket when we recognize the water consumed by the meat and dairy industry.

The meat and dairy industry consumes 47 percent of California’s total water through the direct supply of water to cattle and through the water use of various crops to feed cattle, according to a study by the Pacific Institute.

This same study found that only four percent of the total water supply was used by Californians. Brown’s intentions are good, but the impact of his executive order will hardly be noticed by our ravenous cattle.

Brown’s decree followed a relatively dry winter that has threatened reservoir levels across the state, but without dramatic changes to our dairy and cattle industry, these reservoirs are doomed. Perhaps most perplexing, is why the California government has chosen to ignore this glaring problem in the face of increasing global competition for dairy and cattle.

The total value of Californian dairy, cattle and supporting hay industries in 2012 stood at a little less than $12 billion, comprising 27 percent of our total agricultural profits and a scant 0.6 percent of California’s $1.959 trillion GDP in 2012, according to the USDA. As new consumer markets emerge in China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and elsewhere, global dairy and cattle production is on the rise. This, coupled with an easing of the dairy production cap in Europe, suggests the price of dairy and cattle products may plummet as these products become more available.

California’s dairy industry is no stranger to poaching either—more than 500 dairies have moved east to states like Montana and Wisconsin, where water flows in surplus. Yet even with dairies moving out of California, we remain the top supplier of dairy products in the United States, but we can’t afford to do so anymore. It is time to pass the torch of dairy and cattle production to other states not encumbered by drought; to realize the shrinking profitability of cattle and move on to other proven successful agricultural products.

California’s vineyards are some of the most profitable in the world, and its almond farms make up about 80 percent of the global source of commercial almonds. Fruits and nuts also consume water in significant numbers, but the dollar return per gallon is equally significant, unlike our most commonly grown crop, alfalfa.

Alfalfa requires 1.5 million gallons of water per acre, per year, far more than any other crop, and was sown across 900,000 acres in 2013 which resulted in a yearly water usage of 1.35 trillion gallons. The price of alfalfa is dropping as more states become involved in its growth, at around $200 per ton in states east of the rockies. Yet California’s alfalfa costs $300 per ton.

The cause of this is due to the ever increasing drought in California, coupled by a strong demand for cattle feed in China and a trade deficit with the country that makes it cheaper to ship hay on a boat back to China than it would be to sell the crop a few counties over. This has driven greedy farmers into a sort of arms race for the last of California’s groundwater to see who can turn a massive profit before all the water dries up. But as we‘ve seen in the past, it’ll be Californians who will suffer most from the drought.

There are communities in areas hardest hit by drought that have been without running water for months, requiring a weekly delivery of water to stay alive. This number will only increase as the reservoirs dry up.

In the age of increasingly volatile weather, we must plan for a drought that could last a decade or more. A cumbersome and gluttonous dairy and cattle industry has no place in California’s sustainable future.

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