Water in California: A Breakdown of the 80 Percent That Goes to Agriculture

April 7, 2015 Updated: July 18, 2015

Water in California is a huge topic right now amidst the severe drought, but the specific uses for the precious resource are rarely detailed.

A nice neat graph puts the use in perspective, especially in the context of Governor Jerry Brown’s recent executive order that requires cities to cut water use by 25 percent.

Oddly enough, that order does not include agriculture—which accounts for 80 percent of the water used in the state. “If you don’t want to produce any food and import it from some other place, of course you could do that,” Brown told ABC of shutting down farms’ access to water. “But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don’t think it’s needed.”

Though California’s agriculture is a small part of its economic engine, the produce has become critically important to the entire country—over 33 percent of the country’s vegetables and nearly 66 percent of the country’s fruit and nuts come from the sunny state.

Screenshot 2015-04-07 at 2.00.44 PM
(The Hamilton Project)


(Public Policy Institute of California)
(Public Policy Institute of California)


That wouldn’t happen without a lot of water. According to a report from The Hamilton Project, the 80 percent of agricultural use can be broken down into sections, led by fruits and nuts as 25 percent. That alone is more than all urban use across the state. The data is through 2010, and was published in October 2014. Of that quarter of the state’s water use, Slate estimated that 10 percent goes specifically to almonds. The nuts are grown almost exclusively in California, which exports the increasingly valued crop to other states as well as all over the world.

However, another graph—this one from water experts, including University of California, Davis professor Jay Lund—notes a crucial distinction. That 80 percent is for human water use. But overall, agriculture actually only uses 40 percent of the water. About half the water in California goes to environmental uses, such as water for “wild and scenic” rivers, instream flows, and managed wetlands, the authors wrote. They also used data through 2010, since that’s all that’s available right now.

Alfalfa, which is used to feed cattle and also exported to China and other countries, comes in second, using 14 percent of the water, and pasture ranks third at 9 percent. Other field crops come just behind at 8 percent.

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