How Much Water Went Into Growing the Food We Eat?

The rains bypassed sunny California in January and February 2020, encouraging talk of another drought. California’s last drought was only declared over a year ago, after two wet winters in a row filled the states reservoirs. To cope with the last drought, instead of building more reservoirs and taking other measures to increase the supply of water, California’s policymakers imposed permanent rationing.

This predictable response ignores obvious solutions. Millions of acre feet of storm runoff can not only be stored in new reservoirs, but in underground aquifers with massive unused capacity. Additional millions of acre feet can be recovered by treating and reusing wastewater, and by joining the rest of the developed nations living in arid climates who have turned to large scale desalination.

All of this, however, would require a change in philosophy from one of micromanagement of demand to one that emphasizes increasing supply. To understand why a focus on increasing supply is vastly preferable to reducing demand, it helps to know just how much water California’s urban residents consume compared to other users.

As a matter of fact, the average California household purchases a relatively trivial amount of water from their utility, when compared to how much water they purchase in the form of the food they eat. For this reason, reducing residential water consumption will not make much of a difference when it comes to mitigating the effects of a prolonged drought.

To illustrate this point, it is necessary to determine just how much water […] Read More

Towards a Grand Bargain on California Water Policy

When it comes to water policy in California, perhaps the people are more savvy than the special interests. Because the people, or more precisely, the voters, by huge majorities, have approved nine water bonds in the past 25 years, totaling $27.1 billion. It is likely they’re going to approve another one this November for another $8.9 billion.

The message from the people is clear. We want a reliable supply of water, and we’re willing to pay for it. But the special interests – or whatever you want to call the collection of politicians, unelected bureaucrats with immense power, and other stakeholders who actually decide how all this money is going to be spent – cannot agree on policy. A recent article in the Sacramento Bee entitled “Why San Francisco is joining Valley farmers in a fight over precious California water,” says it all. “Precious California water.” But what if water were so abundant in California, it would no longer be necessary to fight over it?

As it is, despite what by this time next year is likely to be $36 billion in water bonds approved by voters for water investments since 1996, the state is nowhere close to solving the challenge of water scarcity. As explained in the Sacramento Bee, at the same time as California’s legislature has just passed long overdue restrictions on unsustainable groundwater withdrawals, the political appointees on the State Water Resources Control Board are about to enact sweeping new restrictions on how much water agricultural […] Read More