Posted by: Jan | April 14, 2015

Follow the Important Facts


There’s an interesting Op-Ed in the Sacramento Bee today: To respond to California’s drought, we need to follow the facts by Bruce Maiman, a part-time host on KFBK radio.

He adjoins us to, “Beware simple reactions to complex issues.” I would like to add for readers to “Eschew misleading facts and figures.”

He lost my full confidence in his opinion piece when he started with, “For instance, critics of Big Agriculture like to say that farms use 80 percent of water, but sometimes gloss over that that number refers only to water for human purposes. Of California’s total water, about half is devoted to urban and agricultural use, while the other half goes to environmental purposes.” He then goes on to say, ““The No. 1 user of water in California are trees in the Sierra Nevada.”

First, where is the relevance? Unless someone is going to start advocating clear cutting the entire Sierra Nevada range (which would, of course, be not only sill causing massive mud slides and disasters, but also would be a horrible environmental mess). Much of the water in California evaporates from trees. But unless he is advocating humans find a way to suck the evaporating water out of the air to reuse (which would, admittedly, be a neat trick except then it wouldn’t return as rainfall), saying agriculture uses only 40 percent of the water makes no sense in the debate of controlling who gets how much water. That doesn’t justify ignoring agriculture when trying to solve the water crisis.

Second, his numbers are only valid in a year with average precipitation. In dry years, the environment only gets 35% of all water because more ground water is withdrawn. In dry years, agriculture still takes nearly as much (drafting from the ground water when Delta exports aren’t available) hence in dry years agriculture uses 52% of all available water.

It’s much clearer and more straightforward to use the percent of non-environmental water in the discussions. In normal years, agriculture uses approximately 80% of all available water. In dry years agriculture uses approximately 80% of all available water. Straightforward, simple, correct.

Water Usage Including the Environment:

Water Usage Excluding the Environment:

I’m with him on these comments:

    You also hear claims that most of California’s rainfall “washes out to sea” because “liberal environmentalists” have prevented the state from building necessary dams and reservoirs.

    “That’s not the least bit true,” Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, told me. Those outflows keep ocean water from contaminating critical freshwater supplies.

Yes! Water flowing through the Delta to the San Francisco Bay and beyond is not wasted!

However, he then goes on to state there is little reason to pick on fracking which only uses 100 million acre feet (MAF) and says total water is 93 trillion AF. I assume that is the number of total water includes the Colorado River and ground water.

If we focus on the Delta alone, in an average year, the amount exported from the Delta is 5 MAF. This year, in the forth year of a major drought, those exports need to be limited to 1 MAF or 1500 CFS. However, fracking remains an issue. The 100 MAF is a LOT for fracking; particularly when fracking contaminates the already tainted and undrinkable ground water in the Central Valley.

Then he derails again when talking about food production. He tries to combat the almond-growers opponents who say “Almonds are the new demon seed. One gallon to grow a single almond!” by adding, “But walnuts require five. So does broccoli.”

He could also mention that lettuce takes 3.5 gallons. See the list below.

Is that a fair use of numbers? Not really. A single almond may require “only” one gallon of water but, according to the California Farm Bureau, one “serving” of almonds requires 80 gallons of water while one serving of lettuce only 2.9 gallon. Similarly, if a head of broccoli is 5 gallons, one serving would be around 2 gallons. Me, I’d rather have a serving of vegetables on my plate than a pile of almonds.

Where is a priority to put healthy fresh vegetables on Californian’s plates in these facts and figures? As well as for the rest of the country. We keep hearing agriculture saying that if they don’t get their water food prices will go higher. However, I have noticed during these years of drought a significant increase in vegetables at the store that are shipped from Mexico or Costa Rica. I don’t mind getting almonds from overseas. I do worry about getting my lettuce and broccoli from Mexico.

On the other hand, Mr. Maiman is right-on about cattle. Cattle is by far the largest user of water. The grains provided (alfalfa, wheat) are the largest consumers of water. Seventy percent of the alfalfa grown is for dairy cows. The rest is shipped to Asia. Add to that the gallons cows consume and yes, we have a big problem. That is why some are calling for the happy California dairy cows to go back to Wisconsin where there is plentiful rain.

I agree that, “California farmers have been very responsive to economic opportunities, but have also adapted to new technologies to be more efficient. Farmers produce 33 percent more in crops by weight, per unit of water, than they did 20 years ago.” I’ll applaud their improvements but disagree with him that it is the main point to be made. Efficiently using water but then expanding almond orchards into the desert with the water saved doesn’t help California save water.

The amount of water allocated to agriculture (including dairy farms) needs to be reduced.. That isn’t the only action the state needs to take to resolve the drought – but it is a necessary action to avoid losing the Central Valley aquifers and save the Delta.

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