Popular Myths about Water

It rained enough in February to get us close to normal for the month, but not enough to end the drought — even with more rain expected this week.  I’ve been writing a lot about water this winter, and so have many media outlets.  The subject of agricultural use inevitably comes up, and when it does, the “urban myths” start to come out.

Here is my attempt to tackle some very common “accepted truths” about agriculture that are frequently put forward during discussion of California’s drought. I’m guessing you’ve heard some of these too.

1)  “We shouldn’t be farming in the Central Valley, it’s a desert“.  The Central Valley is 600 miles long.  Some parts of it are dry enough to call them desert, others are wet enough that they are flooded for months of the year.  And farming in the desert is not necessarily unsustainable, as long as there are high mountains nearby that collect snow and rainfall.  Humans have been farming in dry flatlands downstream from mountains for thousands of years.  We are in a drought, and droughts can happen anywhere, even in the rain forest.

2)  “Water should be for people first, then agriculture“.  If more people got their food from a CSA like TFF subscribers, they might realize that agriculture uses water to grow food for…people.  One acre of almond trees uses the same amount of water as 16 people annually.  But an acre of almond trees produces nuts for thousands of people.  And the majority of household water use is for landscaping, which is why dense urban areas like San Francisco use so little water.

3)  “Farmers in California should only be allowed to grow high value crops.  Water is too valuable to grow crops like alfalfa (hay).”  As scarce water becomes more valuable and its price goes up, farmers are focusing on their most valuable crops.  Hundreds of thousands of acres will be fallowed this year, causing shortages of many crops that will cause prices to rise.  This is how free markets work.  But remember, the end user of those crops is the consumer.  And low value crops like alfalfa are used to produce higher value crops, like milk, yogurt, and ice cream.

4)  “There isn’t enough water in California for wildlife, people and farming“.  Nonsense.  Some years we have too much water, some years not enough, others just the right amount.  Our water supply system is based on the concept that we store potentially destructive water in wet seasons and years to use in dry ones.  It has worked remarkably well for decades.  So well, in fact, that we have taken it completely for granted since the last big drought ended in 1977.  Meanwhile the state has more than doubled in population.  We need to make improving the infrastructure a top priority, and divisive attitudes are not going to help us move forward with this critical process.

I could keep going, but I don’t think I need to, as so many of our subscribers are well aware of the subtleties and complications of this issue.  However, if you ever find yourself with a question about water use and agriculture that you don’t know the answer to, feel free to send us an email and I will shoot you a quick response.

Thanks for subscribing,

Pablito

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