Bruce Maiman

To respond to California’s drought, we need to follow the facts

Marc and Jeana Kenyon have put in drought-tolerant landscaping at their home in Roseville, which is doing better on water conservation than many other Sacramento-area suburbs.
Marc and Jeana Kenyon have put in drought-tolerant landscaping at their home in Roseville, which is doing better on water conservation than many other Sacramento-area suburbs.

Beware simple reactions to complex issues. If anything has scarred the drought debate, it’s that.

People on all sides have sharpened their axes to grind on whatever they dislike, distorting data and reality and making it that much harder to find a fair solution. What’s needed is a cleansing moment of clarity.

For instance, critics of Big Agriculture like to say that farms use 80 percent of water, but sometimes gloss over that that number refers only to water for human purposes. Of California’s total water, about half is devoted to urban and agricultural use, while the other half goes to environmental purposes.

“The No. 1 user of water in California are trees in the Sierra Nevada,” says Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources. “Other uses include wild and scenic rivers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, wildlife refuges and wetlands, and outflow to the ocean.”

You also hear claims that most of California’s rainfall “washes out to sea” because “liberal environmentalists” have prevented the state from building necessary dams and reservoirs.

“That’s not the least bit true,” Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, told me. Those outflows keep ocean water from contaminating critical freshwater supplies such as the Delta, the complex tidal estuary that collects half of all the freshwater runoff in California. Very little water is actually dedicated to fish, a common misconception.

One big reason California hasn’t built a dam since 1979 is that every river already has at least one. “Building more requires going to more remote, expensive locations, which taxpayers, not environmentalists, have been unwilling to pay for,” said Fahlund, “and it would increase the state’s water yield by no more than 1 percent. We’re way past 1 percent in this drought.”

Others blame oil fracking and companies that bottle water for drawing down aquifers. Fracking operations across the state used 105 million gallons of water last year, figures show. Nestle used 80 million gallons. On average, the state gets 65 trillion gallons of water a year. Nestle and fracking operations are troubling, but halting them solves nothing.

Almonds are the new demon seed. One gallon to grow a single almond! But walnuts require five. So does broccoli. One orange takes 13 gallons, and an apple 18. The typical burger requires 660 gallons. A steak? 1,800. How far shall we take this?

According to California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman David Kranz, in previous droughts, critics condemned using water to grow “low-value crops.” Cotton was especially targeted. So what happened?

“Water prices went up and farmers responded,” Kranz said, “planting the highest value crops they could, like almonds, pistachios and walnuts.” Conversely, cotton acreage plummeted from more than 1 million in the 1990s to about 155,000 now.

The point is that California farmers have been very responsive to economic opportunities, but have also adapted to new technologies to be more efficient. Farmers produce 33 percent more in crops by weight, per unit of water, than they did 20 years ago.

“This isn’t about water per acre, it’s water per dollar value,” Parker said. Watering fields produces a crop that brings income. Watering your lawn doesn’t.

Critics claim that Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory water reductions give farmers a free pass. Yet, last year they took a 30 percent cut in water supplied by water agencies and fallowed some 500,000 acres. This year, the Farm Bureau projects that fallowed acreage will double. For farmers, the drought started long before the governor’s edict.

All this says nothing about pricing water to more fairly reflect how precious it is, or about updating our shamefully antiquated way of measuring water resources, which makes enforcing water rights and groundwater rules enormously difficult.

But to start, let’s pipe down and put our pet peeves in proper context. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to ask the hard questions about accountability, who should make hard sacrifices and how much.

Bruce Maiman regularly fills in as a host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.