AG Water Use: It’s not 80%

Citrus orcard destroyed by drought, central California 2015
Citrus orcard destroyed by drought, central California 2015


With all the facts and figures flying around about California’s water, there’s one number that misleads people, and it matters. One word added to the definition of available water makes a big difference in perception.

News reports are telling the world that agriculture uses 80 per cent of the developed water supply in the state. This number doesn’t tell the real story. The number for amount of water that Ag uses of total water is 40%. The difference is the word, developed.

It is true that ag takes 80 per cent of the water sent south from northern California. That’s “developed” water. That number ignores water used for environmental purposes, and that’s half of all of the water in the state.

Environmental water is the amount of water allowed to flow unhindered to the sea. Some of it can’t be captured for other uses, due to location. Some of it is needed to keep the ocean salt water from infiltrating the delta and poisoning fresh water sources. Some of it keeps wild rivers wild, allows the salmon to swim upstream, and maintains wetlands and estuaries.

These are all good and valid uses, but they are not sacred uses. Including these uses changes the formula and the discussion about water. These environmental uses take about 50 per cent of the available water. Agriculture gets 40 per cent, and cities get ten per cent.

By only talking about “developed” water, and not including environmental uses, we make the environment a sacred cow that cannot be cut. It takes reducing flows for smelt and salmon purposes off the table – we don’t even get to discuss it.

While the cities are reeling over yet more cuts in water use, agriculture has become a natural target. It takes a lot of water to grow crops. and as the Governor was quick to point out, agriculture has taken the brunt of the pain of the current drought and continues to suffer losses of water. But now we need to take a hard look at environmental uses.

Previously published in the Western View from AgNet West, April 2015.

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