The Drought in California

The California drought is not going away anytime soon. And guess what uses more water than anything else in California? Livestock agriculture.

The environmental reasons for veganism suddenly are getting more credibility and attention. The recent film Cowspiracy, and the San Diego based group Truth or Drought, have drawn needed attention to the environmental destructiveness of livestock agriculture.

The solution seems to be obvious. Some people get it, while others don’t. Still other people almost get it, but not quite.

Among the relatively clueless is California’s governor Jerry Brown. His heart is in the right place, and he doesn’t have to worry about getting re-elected (since he’s term-limited anyway). He recently announced mandatory water restrictions, intended to slash California’s water use by 25%, saying that “the idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

Well, how effective is this likely to be? The Pacific Institute gives this breakdown of California water use: 47% for meat and dairy, 46% for all other agricultural products, and 7% to everything else. That’s right — 7% for flushing toilets, taking showers, doing household laundry, all industrial processing, and watering all those bluegrass lawns that Governor Brown is anxious to deal with.

You won't catch me watering the lawn

I’m not a big fan of bluegrass lawns, but what about the over 90% of California irrigation water use that goes to agriculture? If we’re shocked by bluegrass lawns, how shocked should we be that about half of all irrigation water use in California is for livestock feed, and that the new mandatory restrictions don’t cover them?

Some environmental groups almost get it. Food and Water Watch issued a press release on Thursday (April 2) complaining about the huge amount of water going to agriculture and fracking: “Governor Brown is penalizing Californians for their water use but is giving a free pass to agriculture and oil corporations that are over-pumping and polluting our State’s dwindling groundwater supply.”

Unfortunately, while FWW mentions agriculture, they never discuss livestock agriculture, deciding instead to pick on almonds: “it’s time to place limits on the growing almond empire.” On Saturday (April 4) The Washington Post picked up on FWW’s statement in an article, quoting Adam Scow (of FWW) as saying, “everybody’s going to have to do their part. The guys using all the water — you’re not asking them to do their part? It’s dishonest.” However, the Post also did not mention livestock agriculture.

Last Thursday, Democracy Now! interviewed Mark Hertsgaard (author of Hot) concerning the hypocrisy of exempting California’s agricultural system from the mandatory water restrictions. Once again, the FWW press release was mentioned. Like The Washington Post, though, neither Democracy Now! nor Hertsgaard mentioned livestock agriculture. Instead, they picked on those notorious water-wasters, pistachios and almonds. On Sunday, Governor Brown defended not restricting water use in agriculture, saying “[It’s] providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America,” but still ignoring livestock agriculture.

Excuse me? Livestock water use dwarfs that of almonds or pistachios, which are just operating as scapegoats, evidently, for the elephant (or the cow) in the room. Estimates of how much irrigated land goes to livestock vary, but no one pretends that it isn’t huge. Despite the fact that California produces perhaps half, or perhaps 80% of all the fruits and vegetables in the entire United States, livestock agriculture still accounts for more than half of all irrigation water in California.

Dr. Blaine Hanson (who got his doctorate at CSU) gives a more detailed breakdown which shows either alfalfa or pasture forages using more acre-feet of water than any of those plant crops thought to be so thirsty — almonds, rice, cotton, or tomatoes (see chart below). Hanson adds: “It is unlikely that increasing irrigation efficiency will have a large impact in supplying the predicted future water needs of the urban/industrial and environmental sectors. Agricultural land will need to be removed from production to supply the needed water.”

Thanks to Dr. Blaine Hanson

Other people are beginning to catch on. The National Geographic gets it; they chimed in that a vegan saves 600 gallons of water every day compared to the standard American diet. In February, The New Republic printed an article suggesting that we should “curtail the waste of the livestock industry.”

Perhaps the most remarkable support came last November, from California congressional representative Tony Cárdenas (29th district). Cárdenas wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times noting the “staggering” amounts of water going to livestock agriculture — and announcing that he and his staff are getting behind “meatless Mondays.

Outraged? There’s a petition you can sign. But I think that harder questions need to be aimed both at public officials who don’t get it at all, or at media who should get it but don’t — aren’t they supposed to, like, get to the facts of the story? We should be asking Food and Water Watch and Democracy Now! why they have chosen to focus on a relatively minor part of the story — almonds and pistachios — instead of those parts of the agricultural system which are squandering over four times as much water on something that’s not nearly as healthy and kills billions of innocent animals every year. We should also be congratulating leaders such as Tony Cárdenas for being willing not to blink at the obvious truth.

UPDATE April 7: Democracy Now! is now paying attention to this; today they had an extended discussion of Cowspiracy and interviewed directors Keegan Kuhn and Kip Andersen. So we can add Democracy Now! to the list of people willing to report on this issue.

7 thoughts on “The Drought in California

  1. dan lundeen

    Excellent post. More than one reason that great militant vegan let all those animals out of the slaughterhouse pens 2000 years ago.

    Reply
  2. Drew Hensley

    Hey great essay Keith, maybe your best this year. Will pass it on. And you might want to chat with Len over at Death By Climate Change.

    Reply
  3. Noelene Sanderson

    This reminds me of the drought here a couple of years ago – of minor proportions compared with California’s, of course….but sufficient to require the transferring of feed from one end of New Zealand to the other, and causing dire effects on animals and farmers. And the biggest lesson was this: just one farm reported on in News items HAD NO SIGN OF DROUGHT! Why?? Moderate numbers of stock; and ample trees…providing shade and shelter and browsing of leaves as well as lush grass for grazing beneath and between the trees. And of course the constant recycling of moisture is the vital factor. The late Dr Richard St. Barbe Baker, world-renowned silviculturist, reminded people constantly that if we don’t keep at least one-third the earth tree-covered, the water-table is at risk. He had a research paper showing that even an old oak-tree transpires 300 gallons of moisture into the air DAILY. Sadly, I have found that some farmers doubt that trees actually bring moisture!!

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