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Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consume Well Over 90% of California's Water

by Guy T. Saperstein, Alternet
Low-flow showerheads help save much less water than people think. Most people shower once a day and use an average of 14 gallons of water. You could save more water by reducing your beef intake by one pound than by not showering for six months!

California is experiencing a serious drought and the media is filled with recommendations about how to save water: Switch to dry landscaping; don't run water when you are shaving or brushing your teeth; install low­-flow shower­heads; and don't wash your car. All those ideas would help, but much less than people think.

When I ask people to guess how much personal consumption accounts for water usage in California, people guess 20­-40%, which sounds reasonable; ­­­after all, there are 38 million people in California and they have lawns to water, teeth to brush, toilets to flush, cars to wash, and showers to take. But 20-­40% is not even close to being accurate.

  • ­­­According to a 2012 report by the Pacific Institute, only 4% of California's water is used by individuals
  • ­­­An astounding 93% of California's water goes to agriculture; and most of that 93% is misused or wasted

Drive down I­nterstate 5 in the middle of summer in 100-plus-degree weather and you will see huge sprinklers spraying water in the middle of the day and fields being flooded­­­ in the process, losing huge amounts of water to evaporation. Very few crops and very little acreage is watered with drip irrigation in California compared to other arid regions of the world.

California agriculture also concentrates on growing the thirstiest foods­­­ derived from animals, mainly beef, dairy and eggs. One pound of animal protein requires 100 times more water than producing one pound of grain protein. Producing one pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water, compared to 100 gallons for a pound of wheat.

  • ­­­Humans drink less than one gallon of water per day
  • ­­­A cow drinks 23 gallons per day—and we have 5.5 million of them

Not only does it take huge amounts of water to hydrate animals, it takes billions of additional gallons of fresh water to irrigate the feed for livestock, wash excrement off concrete floors, and clean blood and grease from equipment used in the butchering process. A dairy operation that uses an automatic flushing system can use 150 gallons of water per cow, per day.

Crops like corn and soybeans­­­ made cheap by government subsidies­­­ used to fatten up cattle also waste water.

And why does California grow water-­intensive crops like rice, which requires the flooding of fields, and cotton? Shouldn’t water-­hogging crops like cotton and rice be grown in the southeast United States, which has abundant water?

Most people shower once a day and use an average of 14 gallons of water. You could save more water by reducing your beef intake by one pound than by not showering for six months!

People think grass­fed beef is the ecological answer, but pasture-­raised animals require more water than factory-farmed beef because they have higher activity levels and spend more time in the sun. Grass­fed cows produce 60% to 400% more methane. (Of course, there are compelling health reasons to switch to grassfed beef, as grassfed cows are far healthier and organic beef will be free of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics.)

But none of that is the worst of the story. Agriculture uses 93% of California's water and almost half of that is devoted to growing alfalfa for shipment to the Far East, mainly China, to feed their cows. California is, in effect, shipping almost half its precious water to China.

And none of this would have been possible without the help of Democrats. The extravagant waste of California water by California agriculture is the result of cheap water, water subsidized by state and federal water projects begun more than 50 years ago.

When water is cheap­­­ and the state is willing to continue building water infrastructure like viaducts and tunnels­­­ there is little incentive for California agri­business to do anything but continue to feed California politicians. Yes, California agri­business supports Republicans too, but the Democrats get most of the big agriculture money because Democrats have delivered the water for Big Ag. Jerry Brown's father, Pat, delivered the California Water Project in 1959, and Jerry Brown supported the Peripheral Canal 30 years ago and supports the Twin Tunnels project today.

Stewart Resnick, an agri­business tycoon who owns 115,000 acres of farmland in Kern County, has funneled $4 million to politicians, mostly to Democrats, including $99,000 to Jerry Brown in 2010. Resnick has been repaid handsomely for his political donations, most notably the creation of the Kern County Water Bank, which has pumped water underground and is one reason Central Valley reservoirs were drained so low the last few years. The book How Limousine Liberals and Water Oligarchs are Hijacking Our Water, by Yasha Levine, says, "through a series of subsidiary companies... Roll International [owned by Resnick] has been able to convert California's water from a public, shared resource into a private asset that can be sold on the market to the highest bidder."

There is a saying, "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting." Unfortunately, to date, the fight mostly has been about moving water from north to south at public expense. Missing in this fight is any serious discussion about how California agri­business could stop wasting California's water. As we go forward into more years of potential drought, California needs to change the conversation. We need to reassess the blame and point fingers at the real users and abusers of California water.

Guy T. Saperstein is a former civil rights attorney and past president of the Sierra Club Foundation. He is a board member of Brave New Films, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Northern Sierra Partnership.

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Comments (Hide Comments)
by Jim Morris, California Rice Commission
Water needs to be used wisely all of the time in California, especially in times of drought. The author has some inaccurate information about how much water rice plants in California require. Rice uses about the same amount of water per serving as oranges and broccoli. Rice fields are precisely leveled through GPS. The heavy clay soils of the Sacramento Valley hold the water in place with almost no loss. In addition, these rice fields are home to millions of birds and are a critical link of the Pacific Flyway. Rice fields provide about 60 percent of the food for the millions of ducks and geese that travel along the Flyway each winter.

In total, all of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley uses 37 percent of the region's water. That's a figure generated by the state. Nearly 60 percent of the water is used for the environment - largely aiding salmon runs. Cities in the North Valley use about four percent of the total.

The discussion about water use in California needs to start with getting the facts straight.
by Journalistic Integrity Needed
Of the average 194.2 million acre feet of water available to California annually, only 82.5 million acre feet of water is developed for storage and conveyance. Of that 82.5 million acre feet, the environment receives about 47%, municipalities receive about 11% to quench their thirst, and Ag turns the remaining 42% into food for people to consume around the world.

by ugh
So, industry obviously doesn't like this article, as noted by the two comments above. And "readers" should know that the state of California and its democrats have long been in the pockets of agri-business, so be sure to read between the lines of state-sponsored (dis)information about water here.

It's a farce to use "environmental" water as a bit of statistical trickery to reduce the percentage gobbled up by wasteful agri-business. So, if a river is not sucked 100% dry for rice, cotton, and whatnot, then agri-business is not that bad, right? But if you don't count river flows that still exist (albeit reduced), then even by the state's own figures, agri-business is devouring over 80% of usable water. To grow things like rice and cotton that should never be grown in a desert, to use massive sprinklers on hot afternoons, to support millions of cattle for meat and dairy, it just doesn't make sense. And then to try to put the blame on people going about their lives, scolding them for their relatively minimal use as individuals, talking about conservation as a moral value, when industry wastes water like there is no tomorrow, well, it'd be laughable if it weren't so tragic.

For those interested, the Pacific Institute study cited in this article can be found at Let readers decide for themselves who they want to trust with numbers.
by Sludge
Rice does NOT require flooding to grow. That water wasting farm practice is a method of controlling weeds, and rice can be grown without any flood irrigation at all...and as for clay soil, yes heavy clay soil prevents water infiltration to replenish the water bearing aquifers, meanwhile losing massive quantities of water to EVAPORATION... Remember evaporation from your 5th grade, Jim? No? Is that because you didn't finish 5th Grade?

Rice farming practices waste massive quantities of the Public Water Resource, by Choice, not by necessity.
by Jenai Herod (paws4mercy [at]
leather can be grown faster better and without EVER needing to kill cattle , WHY we arent implementing this solution is insanity essentially sadistic and insanity , and probably ignored the same reason we still use gas CORPORATE GREED AND laziness that is going to cost us our planet , we need to change the way we think and operate before its too late if it isnt already , We have the technology and the common sense its time to EVOLVE and stop wasting our planets precious resources and we need not point Blame on mistakes form the past if it didnt work then find out what does quit playing the BLAME GAME and worrying about pointing fingers , it is a waste of time and serves no one .
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