California’s Poor Water Policies Threaten Agricultural Supply

July 5, 2021 Updated: July 6, 2021


As much as 18 percent of all the land growing table food for consumption by Americans is at risk due to poor water management policies.

The root causes of the potential food crisis are many.

Kelly Malloy, director of strategic services at an urban water district in Southern California, said that literally “every drop of water in Southern California has been litigated and is accounted for.”

According to the California Department of Water Resources, 50 percent of surface water is used for environmental purposes, 40 percent for agriculture, and 10 percent for urban use.

Although a significant portion of California’s water supply is used for agriculture, it’s not being used wastefully, said agriculturalist Steve Jackson.

“Farmers are among the strongest environmentalists on earth,” said Jackson, who is a member of eight water boards. “We live in the dirt and work with trees and plants for a living. If we don’t steward the soil and water as effectively as possible, we literally threaten our livelihoods.”

Much of California’s irrigation water is used for agriculture, and much of Southern California’s urban water comes from what experts call “the Delta,” referring to where the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River enter San Francisco Bay.

Currently, some 65 percent of Delta surface water is being dumped into the ocean.

Legitimately, much of that water flowing downriver keeps saltwater in the bay and out of the river. Were the water flowing down the rivers ever not to flow with enough force, saltwater from the bay would go inland, salination in the rivers would increase, and the water leading to irrigation and urban uses would become unusable.

All professional users recognize the need for environmental uses of water to protect the water in streams and rivers used to feed our crops and provide water to urban areas.

However, with 65 percent of all Delta water still being flushed into the ocean, even in a severe drought, sufficient water is not being sequestered and put back into the water table under our feet.

Much of California sits on top of natural aquifers, which are basically underground reservoirs and rivers. They serve as source water for wells throughout the entire state.

Such wells, if the aquifers were managed correctly, could be used during droughts to keep the water flowing to farms and cities.

A second problem is that some 40 percent of all urban water usage is used for landscaping rather than for drinking or hygiene. Many users spend more than half their landscaping water on watering their lawns, which provides little benefit to the environment. Whereas trees sequester carbon, grass provides little such benefit.

‘Problem of the Commons’

Dave Smith is chairman of the East Valley Water District. Citing a well-known economics problem called “the tragedy of the commons,” he said both water and dams are a “problem of the commons.” In other words, regarding both surface water (which comes from rain and snowmelt) and groundwater (under the earth), everyone has an incentive to use water themselves and not leave as much for their neighbors.

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Malloy, the head of strategic services at the East Valley Water District, said the public now expects governments and water districts to work together to conserve and use water as efficiently and equitably as possible.

As such, urban users are doing more to conserve water. The East Valley Water District, for example, is about to complete a $110 million project that will put more than half of its water use back into the local water table. It will also help reduce greenhouse gases from food processors, reduce waste going into landfills, and create green-energy electricity from sustainable sources such as the methane from that food waste they plan to take in.

Table Food at Risk

Whereas the water district is deemed to be using its water for a “beneficial use” when it puts clean wastewater back into the ground, agriculturalists are not allowed to use unused groundwater for such purposes.

Indeed, the 70 percent of table food that comes from California mostly comes from areas that would otherwise be desert.

According to Steve Jackson and his father and fellow farmer Don Jackson, 95 percent of all that land suitable for farming in California wouldn’t be arable for its current purposes without the water infrastructure built during the 1940s through the 1970s.

Table food travels from farm to plate in the same condition in which it’s harvested. Most corn, soybeans, and all wheat wouldn’t be considered “table food” because those crops are later processed or used to feed livestock.

Seventy percent of table food consumed by Americans comes from California. The Golden State is the top producer of some 40 farm products, including cheese.

The Jackson family said there are four or five million acres in California used to produce food—and as much as a quarter of that acreage is at risk because of poor water management policies.

Given that 70 percent of Americans’ table food comes from California and that 20 to 25 percent of the land where that food comes from is at risk, 14 to 18 percent of all table food in America is at risk of disappearing.

At the very least, food prices would increase if water doesn’t start flowing to these food-producing regions.

Need for More Infrastructure

Steve Jackson said that whenever he travels, people bring up the issue of almonds and how much water is required to grow them. The truth, he says, is that California’s climate and soil are uniquely beneficial for almond trees and that if California didn’t grow the nuts, the world would just have fewer, more expensive almonds.

This gets back to the issue of the problem of the commons.

It’s true that current farmers and landowners benefit privately from taxpayers’ increased investment in water infrastructure.

However, it is also true that taxpayers, in return, benefit from increased water security, increased food security, and lower food prices. Furthermore, those landowners and farmers do pay taxes and it’s highly likely that the increased beneficial use of their land also increases the tax revenue associated with their land.

The current drought and California’s not building more water infrastructure to conserve water during wet years are combining to put large amounts of America’s table food at risk.

And as Malloy noted, “The cost of dealing with the problem after it gets here is exponentially more expensive than dealing with it now, when we can be proactive rather than reactive.”

Tim Shaler is a professional investor and economist based in Southern California. He is a regular columnist for The Epoch Times, where he exclusively provides some of his original economic analysis.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Tim Shaler
Tim Shaler
Tim Shaler is a professional investor and economist based in Southern California. He is a regular columnist for The Epoch Times, where he exclusively provides some of his original economic analysis.