Report details toll of agriculture, oil and gas sectors on California water crisis

Story at a glance

  •  Increasing demand and climate change have taken a toll on California’s water supply.

  • In a new report, researchers lay out how industrial agriculture and the oil and gas sectors impact supplies.

  • Researchers recommend switching to more renewable energy sources and curbing expansion of mega-dairies to help address the crisis. 

A new report from the nongovernmental organization Food and Water Watch details the extent to which both the agriculture and oil and gas industries impact water stability in California. Combined, the sectors use hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater each year.

Despite the deluge of rain and snow that fell on California earlier this winter, the vast majority of the state still suffers from at least a moderate drought. The past two decades marked the region’s driest period in more than 1,200 years. 

Although climate change is in part to blame for the water crisis in the West, growing demand also plays a role in water shortages.

“Many of our headlines speak to the drought as the sole reason for our water crisis, but this report clearly shows how big oil and big agriculture are abusing and using billions of gallons of our water for their benefit — enough to meet the water needs of every Californian,” Chirag Bhakta, the California Organizing Director at Food and Water Watch, said in an interview with Changing America. 

Although agriculture accounts for less than 2 percent of the state’s economy, the sector is the largest in the nation and generates more than $50 billion in revenue each year. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry accounts for around 2.1 percent of the California’s overall gross state product.

In California, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water diverted from the Colorado River, with tree nut, alfalfa and dairy farming making up a large portion of this total. 

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In 2021, almond- and pistachio-bearing acres throughout the state required an estimated 520 billion more gallons of water for irrigation compared with 2017, according to data compiled by Food and Water Watch. 

This increase in water usage from the nut crop expansion could have supplied around 87 percent of the state’s population with enough water for indoor daily use for an entire year, researchers said.

Because almond and nut orchards are permanent, they need to be watered year-round. In addition, around 58 percent of the state’s almonds were exported overseas in 2020, which amounts to shipping 880 billion gallons of the state’s water supply abroad, researchers said.

“What we grow must reflect the soil, must reflect the water intensity and must reflect the situation that we’re in right now,” said Bhakta. “Agriculture is a major part of California’s economy and identity, and it can remain that way in a more responsible manner, if we stop growing, mostly for profit, crops that are water intensive.” 

Nearly 580,000 acres in California are used to grow alfalfa, while on average, farms use 5 acre-feet of water per acre of the crop. One acre-foot is equivalent to one acre of land covered in water one foot deep, or about enough to supply two California families for a year.

Together, it takes an estimated 945 billion gallons of water to irrigate all of California’s alfalfa acreage, the report found.

Similar to almonds, alfalfa is often exported overseas, though much of the alfalfa stays within the state to feed its nearly 1.7 million cows on mega-dairy farms, or industrial-sized commercial dairy operations. 

Another 142 million gallons of water a day are required to maintain the cows at the state’s mega-dairies, which equates to “more than enough water to provide the daily recommended indoor water usage for every resident of San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego combined,” researchers found. 

That total only includes water given to cows to drink, as well as water used to wash cows and buildings. It excludes water needed to grow feed or to move manure into storage systems.

In Tulare County alone, there are more cows than people. And as small family farms have shut down across the state, they’ve been replaced with industrial-scale operations

“Small farmers with half a dozen, a dozen, or few dozen cows is not the issue,” said Bhakta. 

“They are not the big water abusers across the state,” Bhakta said. “We’re talking about billion-dollar agricultural companies.”

When it comes to California’s oil and gas industries, the sector used more than 3 billion gallons of freshwater — or the equivalent of 120 million showers — for drilling operations between January 2018 and March 2021, the report found.

In the Central Valley, where more than 80 percent of the state’s new and active wells are drilled, low-resource communities and communities of color “bear the brunt of drought impacts,” authors wrote. 

It’s estimated more than 1 million people in California do not have access to safe drinking water, while the majority of failing water systems are located in low-income communities primarily located in the Central Valley. 

California provides water to its residents through a variety of means. The state’s system of dams and canals helps transport water from wetter northern regions to southern, drier areas, home to both urban centers and agricultural production. 

The southern region also receives water from the shrinking Colorado River. The river, which provides water to more than 40 million people in seven states and Mexico, is predominantly used for agricultural purposes. Each year, more than 8 million acre-feet of its water is used for agricultural irrigation, supporting 15 percent of all U.S. crops. 

Of the water allocated for agriculture, more than 80 percent is used for crops like alfalfa or others for feedstock on farms. 

Authors called on Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), state regulators and the legislature to “develop new water policy for the state that makes good on the promise that Californians should have access to clean, reliable water and that stops the expansion of (and begins to roll back) the damaging industries using the most water.” 

They also urge Newsom to use executive and emergency powers to prevent planting of new almond and alfalfa acres in the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, end new oil and gas drilling, and ban new mega-dairies and expansion of existing ones. 

“We are not fated by the drought or by climate change to be in this water crisis,” Bhakta added. “The crisis is real, and the solutions are also very possible.”

Additional solutions could include switching to renewable energy sources. According to the report, if the state switched from fossil fuel and nuclear electricity production to 100 percent renewable sources like wind, it could save 82 million cubic meters of water each year.

Any future state interventions should also “respect the water rights of Indigenous communities, actively consult with Indigenous communities on water rights and best water management practices, and prioritize state support to disadvantaged communities experiencing water shortages,” the authors wrote.