California enters the summer in the midst of a historically bad drought that has plagued much of the state for nearly four years. In recent months, Governor Jerry Brown implemented the first water restrictions, highlighted by a 25% decrease in water usage by citizens and non-agriculture businesses. A crisis such as this certainly warrants a response, but what we must ask ourselves is was this an efficient way to address the worst drought California has seen in the last 100 years?
California has been dubbed an agricultural superpower, producing roughly half of the county’s fruits, nuts and vegetables as well as exporting a large amount of agricultural products to China. This agricultural prowess provides jobs to Californians and a sizable portion of the food consumed in the US, yet it is an extremely wasteful process in terms of water use. As Mark Hertsgaard reports, Agriculture uses 80% of the water in California while only contributing 5% of the state GDP. As the state’s largest water user, why was the agricultural industry spared from the recent restrictions placed on water consumption?
While the recent restrictions on water consumption didn’t include the agricultural industry, the past year has seen federal and state water agencies drastically reducing the amount of water distributed to farmers in California. This has had a major impact on farmer’s lives as a large majority of acres remain unplanted and economic livelihoods lost. However, with a vast amount of resources and capital “Big Agriculture” has been able to continue normal production and has boasted of record profits recently. In the face of a decrease in available water from state and federal agencies, corporate farms have turned to ground water extraction.
The deep pockets of “Big Ag” and lack of state regulation have allowed companies to continue drilling deeper for groundwater, something that the average farmer cannot afford to do. Much of this is due to the political clout of the agricultural industry in California. Billionaires such as Stewart Resnick have been among the top contributors to the political campaigns of California’s top politicians. This clout is evident in the recent fight for ground water legislation, which due to agricultural interests will not be implemented until 2022 and full implementation won’t occur until 2040. Further, agricultural lobbyists continue to fight increases in the price of water which is kept cheap due to federal and state subsidies. California is also the only western dry state without legislation on ground water use. This drilling is at the expense of other Californians, as continued overuse of ground water could destroy aquifers and leave the ground barren.
This turns us back to the question of what type of policy should be in place to get California through an environmental crisis. Should large corporations be allowed to buy their way out of the drought? It’s a simple question, should public policy favor corporate profits over the needs of the masses? Policy should be logical and efficient, California’s recent actions are not.
For more on Big Agriculture and the California drought see the following:
Kevin McElrath is a PhD student in sociology at Stony Brook University. His research focuses on work, economic inequality, and labor markets. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2014 with a BA in sociology. He is an avid sports fan following the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Cavaliers and Duke Blue Devils.