Water – A New Normal?

Water – A New Normal?

A California drought might be happening or we might be seeing a new normal for precipitation. In any case, why are we growing rice and cotton on land that receives such limited rainfall?

Is the California drought a thing or is this the new normal?

California might be in a drought or we may be seeing a new – significantly lower – “normal” for precipitation in the state. It could be that the type, amount and location of rain and snowfall no longer match California’s infrastructure. In any case, I have to wonder why we are growing rice and cotton on land that receives such limited rainfall, regardless of how fertile the soil is.

In “The Grapes of Wrath” the Joad family went to California for the promise of jobs resulting from new irrigation projects. In the 1920s through the 1950s California’s newly built pipelines moved water south to arid land with fertile soil. Unfortunately, that infrastructure was designed around conditions that no longer exist.

Those whose lives and livelihoods depend on California water and agriculture are stuck in the middle of this debate. If you’re dependent on fields receiving water in order to pay back loans and feed your family, the distinction between drought and a “new normal” isn’t as important as knowing that water will get to the fields. Lately, due to various forces of nature and human activity the water hasn’t been getting there.

“Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow….and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”

Recent rainfalls notwithstanding, we have engineered a system in California that won’t survive unless we change the ways we use water. People point fingers at who is to blame or who has control or whose facts are more accurate than others, but the reality is that Americans have come to rely on water-intensive California agriculture. In addition, California’s water crisis is fueled by poor water management and explosive population growth and sprawl. Now the governor has proposed a massive bond measure to add to the state’s infrastructure and exploit new water sources, but the measure has received only mixed support and a fair amount of opposition.

Water rates are (or are supposed to be) set to cover the cost of the infrastructure built to treat and move the water; however, rates don’t typically include a cost for the actual water itself and water for agriculture is often subsidized significantly below market value. In addition, prior appropriation water rights typically have a “use it or lose it” feature that discourages efficiency and conservation in agriculture.

The rest of the nation should closely watch the results of that bond vote in November because the problems in California have an awful lot to do with our expectations as a nation. We expect that California produce will be there when we want it and water will keep flowing as it has for the past 80 years.

Of course there may always be water flowing in California, but “normal” is definitely in flux and we can’t control the weather. Before we construct massive new water delivery systems that encourage waste and consume large amounts of energy, perhaps we should consider adjusting our expectations about what can realistically be grown, when and where. Maybe it’s time to stop creating fruits that are too expensive or too complicated to be eaten in good conscience.


Originally published at GRACE’s former blog Ecocentric by Robin Madel on 04.27.2010.
Image: Abandoned farm in the dust bowl area. Oklahoma. April 1936. Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer. Credit: Library of Congress