This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, April 6, 2015

California's Drought Versus Agriculture: Lessons for the Future?

California is the most populous state in the Union, with almost 12 million more people than Texas, which is #2. California also has the biggest economy--so big that it would be the 7th biggest in the world, if California were a nation-state instead of just a state. That's all well and good, except for the water problem. 
The 25 percent cut in water consumption ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown raises fundamental questions about what life in California will be like in the years ahead, and even whether this state faces the prospect of people leaving for wetter climates — assuming, as Mr. Brown and other state leaders do, that this marks a permanent change in the climate, rather than a particularly severe cyclical drought.
The problem is that we ordinary citizens don't use most of the water. Granted, here in Southern California we have to import 90 percent of our water from other places (think snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains of central and northern California and snow in the Rockies, coming to us via the Colorado River). But almost all of this water is surface water and it is at least relatively easy to monitor and price. Very few residents of California are dependent upon wells dug to tap into groundwater. But that is not true for farmers, whose use of surface and ground water is critical to the state's problems. Agriculture uses 75-80 percent of the state's water and the politics of water in California's agricultural sector are legion and are not going to be dealt with easily, as a follow-up story in today's NYTimes makes clear. Agriculture accounts for only about 2 percent of the state's economy, but the global impact is enormous. Ninety percent of the wine produced in the U.S. comes from California's grapes, and the rice, nut, fruit and vegetable production is greater than countries such as Canada, Mexico, Germany and Spain, according to a report from the University of California, Davis--the state's land grant university. 

The economic stakes are high, but the critical issue is whether the model of overusing water to grow food for a growing population is a sustainable model. 
California’s greatest resource in dry times is not its surface reservoirs, though, but its groundwater, and scientists say the drought has made the need for better controls obvious. While courts have taken charge in a few areas and imposed pumping limits, groundwater in most of the state has been a resource anyone could grab.
Yet putting strict limits in place is expected to take years. The new law, which took effect Jan. 1, does not call for reaching sustainability until the 2040s. Sustainability is vaguely defined in the statute, but in most basins will presumably mean a long-term balance between water going into the ground and water coming out. Scientists have no real idea if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.
If the drought is genuinely a product of global climate change and not just part of a cycle, the answer is more likely "no" rather than "yes." And that means that we need to rethink what we grow--and thus what we eat--not just in California but everywhere. And, on top of that, how much we are going to have to pay for it. In particular, a diet that includes a lot less meat would mean not wasting water on growing food for animals that are then sent off to be killed for human consumption...


  1. INDEED ... Prof Weeks - it is difficult to imagine how a State such as California could get into such a MESS over the situation with its water supply. California is one of the leading regions of the world, in terms of science, technology and the economy. This State has a broader and more powerful economy than many entire countries. And YET we cannot effectively solve a problem with fresh water? The mind boggles at the gross incompetency of management it takes to produce such an outcome!! We have a real crisis in leadership.

    At this stage California has ONE viable option. Desalination. Fortunately, the state has abundant access to ocean waters. Fortunately, other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel have been desalinating water for decades. This is not an "unknown technology". ALL that is necessary is for California to move seriously and make the solution happen. And is this process occurring - HECK NO!!

    The water problem in the southwest USA, affecting California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas will be monumental in the next 3-4 decades. It was a completely solvable problem. But an entire generation of voters and politicians did nothing to fix the issue - allowing it to become a full-blown crisis.

    It doesn't bode well for the future of the world. How many more man-made crises does it take before we grapple with the fact ... that the world is lacking real leadership?

    Pete Pollock, Redondo Beach, CA

  2. Follow-up comment. I just saw an NPR program talking about the CA water crisis. What comes across clearly - is that California does NOT have a handle on this problem at all. There is every reason to think that EVEN IF citizens reduce water intake by some nominal amount, this will FAIL to restore balance in the water supply problem. California has become enormously water-hungry (thirsty) as it tries to sustain an environment that is not a desert. The degree of adjustment required to bring water consumption in line with supply is ... draconian. This situation is a huge mess.

    One big surprise is that the city of Santa Barbara does NOT have its ocean desalination plant working. they are now trying to restore it. it was shut down years ago. WHAT????? the computer technology that runs the plant is seriously outdated. A major re-investment in new technology is required.

    We can't even rise to the level of "crisis management" when it comes to the water problem. There is a risk of a real Dustbowl 2.0 if this climate problem persists for decades.

    Pete, Redondo Beach

    1. Yes, I too heard about the Santa Barbara desalination plant. The problem is that it is VERY expensive (the Saudis call it turning oil into water) and has substantial environmental costs. As you suggest, though, the problem is that all along we in California have not actually been paying the true cost for water--and now the debt is due.