California's Drought: What it Really Means - Part 1

The Lempert Report
April 24, 2015

What does California's Drought really mean for us and how we grow our food?

According to The U.S. Drought Monitor 40% of California is in the “exceptional drought” category – which, according to the report "How unusual is the 2012–2014 California drought?", published in the American Geophysical Union journal,  is up 23% from a year ago making this drought the most severe in approximately 1,200 years.

California’s drought affects every person and every touch point along the agriculture supply chain. This region of the country boasts the most diverse crops (over 400) and supplies nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables to the rest of the country, according to the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Some crops, including almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are produced solely in California; and the state represents almost 90% or more of the production of grapes, broccoli, lemons, celery, cauliflower, prunes and plums.

While conversations about the drought often surround Governor Jerry Brown’s edict for mandatory water use restrictions, there's something important that's not being talked about.  California, especially in the areas that most of these crops are grown, is naturally dry, but through man-made irrigation was turned into one of our nation’s most important food growing regions. 

Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader and grandson of a cattle rancher who lives in the hard hit Central Valley of California, is attempting to pass legislation that would change the way water is captured and stored in the future. Politics aside, he is correct to state that we need to make changes in the ways we use water to grow our foods in the future. 

Almost 98% of the Earth’s water supply is salt water and one repeatedly discussed solution is to build along California’s 840 mile coastline desalination plants.   The $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad California, the largest built in the Western Hemisphere, will begin operating later this year to supply San Diego County with 50 million gallons of high quality drinking water each day according to Poseidon Water the owner of the plant. The Association of California Water Agencies in 2012 began preparation to build 17 desalination plants in the state. Of note, is that even when fully operating, these plants will only supply 5% to 7% of average urban water demand in California, according to the Pacific Institute; and environmentalists continue to voice concerns on the impact of these facilities on sea life.

There are three types of water: blue, green and grey.  Blue water is fresh surface and groundwater that is found in lakes, streams, reservoirs and aquifers; the water that we drink, bathe in, use for domestic activities and in agriculture from everything from feeding animals, irrigation as well as food production. Green water is rainwater that is stored in the soil and evaporates or transpires through plants. According to The Crop Site, Green Water can be made productive when treated to a quality suitable for provision as a non-potable supply for industrial, residential or public use such as toilet flushing, horticultural/irrigation purposes, laundries, industrial processes or washing, heating/cooling functions.  Grey water is water that was previously used and contains impurities, such as water from our washing machines or dishwashers or wastewater and needs to be treated.

Where we get our water, its quality, and whether water is abundant or in short supply matters quite a bit. 

Tune in again to The Lempert Report next Friday where we'll talk about how the drought, and our use of water for livestock and production, has provoked the debate about the sustainability of animal protein.