Californians Point to Big-Ag, Unrestrained Development as Drought Culprits

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Californians Point to Big-Ag, Unrestrained Development as Drought Culprits

The nearly-dry Uvas Reservoir. (Photo: Ian Abbott/flickr/cc)

As residents adapt to recently imposed water restrictions and California's historic drought continues, experts are closely examining the dry spell's exacerbating factors—from thirsty agribusiness operations to unrestrained development—and saying a fundamental shift is in store for the Golden State.

In an analysis published Sunday, the New York Times suggests that the drought will "force a change in the way the state does business."

"Much like the Gold Rush more than 150 years ago or the rise of Silicon Valley, the assumption of cheap and abundant water has been a crucial part of California’s identity, history and economy," write Times journalists Adam Nagourney, Jack Healy, and Nelson D. Schwartz.

They continue:

And until recently, it seemed that the California dream was sustainable: booming cities, wide lawns in the suburbs, green golf courses in an otherwise parched landscape and, above all, a vibrant agricultural sector in places not much wetter than a desert.

But no longer.

According to the Times piece, "California Drought Tests History of Endless Growth," the mandatory water restrictions announced by Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday will bring about not just lifestyle adjustments but cultural change.

It argues that the "punishing drought—and the unprecedented measures the state announced last week to compel people to reduce water consumption—is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature."

Still, the Times notes—as environmental groups did last week—that "even a significant drop in residential water use will not move the consumption needle nearly as much as even a small reduction by farmers. Of all the surface water consumed in the state, roughly 80 percent is earmarked for the agricultural sector."

Adam Scow, California director of Food & Water Watch, said Wednesday: "It is disappointing that Governor Brown’s executive order to reduce California water use does not address the state’s most egregious corporate water abuses. In the midst of a severe drought, the Governor continues to allow corporate farms and oil interests to deplete and pollute our precious groundwater resources that are crucial for saving water."

News outlets have reported that reductions in water supplies for farmers are likely to be announced in the coming weeks, and there is also likely to be increased pressure on the farms to move away from certain water-intensive crops, like almonds or beef.

But in an appearance on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Brown defended the state's powerful agricultural sector.

"The farmers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of land," Brown told ABC host Martha Raddatz. "They're pulling up vines and trees. Farm workers who are very low end of the economic scale here are out of work. There are people in agriculture areas that are really suffering."

He argued against cracking down further on big-ag operations or factory farms, saying: "If you don't want to produce any food and import it from some other place, of course you could do that. But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don't think it's needed."

Another group not shouldering its share of the water-shortage burden is California's wealthy class, the LA Times reported Sunday:

As California gears up for the first mandatory water restrictions in its history, a long-standing class divide about water use is becoming increasingly apparent.

Beverly Hills and other affluent cities use far more water per capita than less-wealthy communities, prompting some to cast them as villains in California’s water conservation effort.

Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on the UCLA water-use study, told the LA Times that wealthy Californians are "lacking a sense that we are all in this together."

She added: "The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich."

And others underscored why the four-year drought is much more than a local or state-level problem.

The Detroit Free Press editorial board on Sunday reminded readers that "those of us living in the other 49 states won't be exempt from the fallout. California farmers, who provide about half the country's fruits and vegetables, have already lost hundreds of thousands of acres of previously productive farmland. The impact on produce prices at your local grocery store will only intensify if the drought, already reckoned the worst in California's recorded history, persists."

The editorial continued:

Our proximity to abundant supplies of freshwater may give many Michiganders a false sense of security, at least until they wander into the produce aisle. But Brown's emergency edict makes it clear that the consequences of climate change are growing less theoretical, and more concrete, with each passing season.

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