California’s Bullshit Drought Response and the Politics of Climate Adaptation

We’re tinkering at the margins of disaster, putting 40 million people in jeopardy because we’re terrified of upsetting politically powerful corporate interests.

While the news has been buzzing with Governor Jerry Brown imposing California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions in response to the catastrophic drought, what often goes unspoken is that the new constraints leave untouched the state’s biggest water consumer by far: agribusiness.  Agriculture uses 80% of California’s water, yet the only thing Brown is requiring agricultural companies to do is provide more information about their water use.  Gov. Brown’s response to criticism?  “Some people have a right to more water than others.” 

This is a preview of the broader politics we’ll see unfold as America struggles to adapt to climate change.  On a global scale, climate change is primarily being caused by the unchecked consumption of the rich and the reckless path of the powerful.  Meanwhile, the people harmed most by drought and sea level rise here in California, and other negative impacts all over the world, will be the poor and powerless.  Much like during our recent economic disaster, as we face environmental disaster, lawmakers and other very serious people will tell us that we all need to tighten our belts and make sacrifices for the greater good in a harsh new world.  Yet at the end of the day, it always seems that the only sacrifices made are from everyday people whose contributions are metaphorically and literally a drop in the bucket.  Meanwhile, the wealthy interests that lie at the root cause of the problem sail along with their profits, subsidies, and guarantees intact.

The people of California didn’t cause this drought.  The people of California are not luxuriously long shower-taking germophobes who have crushed our environment beneath the weight of our excessively detail-oriented dishwashing.  This drought is the result of generations of poorly managed water policy driven by the political heavyweight of big agribusiness’s lobbyists who demand ultra-cheap water rates.  This drought is the result of a housing bubble driven by real estate developers and banks who financed endless expansions of suburban sprawl across the scorching heat of inland California for families who could no longer afford to live in increasingly expensive coastal cities.  This drought is the result of hopeless inaction on climate change, where overwhelming warnings from the scientific community are being screamed down by the political megaphone of the fossil fuel lobby.

A real drought response would focus on the root causes of our water consumption.  It cannot be emphasized enough that 80% of our water is used by agribusiness and much of the rest goes to golf courses and country clubs.  But even our residential water consumption is not equal:  The majority of residential water use (and the vast majority not directly used to keep people alive and healthy) is used for outdoor landscaping like lawns.  Single family homes have twice the outdoor water use of multifamily apartments, and rich neighborhoods use three times the water of poor neighborhoods.

Here’s what a real drought response might look like if we weren’t so afraid of powerful special interests:

1)  Build sustainable affordable housing in coastal cities

In the peak summer months, an average San Francisco resident uses 46 gallons of water a day.  Other coastal cities range around 50-100 gallons, while inland cities average around 200-500 gallons a day per person.  It takes massive amounts of water to keep lawns green in suburban subdivisions sprawling out from scorching hot inland cities.  We need housing growth policies that encourage dense, affordable, water/energy-efficient multi-family housing in cool coastal urban areas rather than McMansions in the hot inland parts of the state.   But right now our housing regulations do the exact opposite:  it’s easy for developers to build cheap new housing in Bakersfield, Palmdale or San Bernardino, not so much in San Francisco, Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara, where longtime wealthy homeowners are vehemently opposed to higher density apartments being built in their neighborhoods.

Although more people are migrating out of California than in, our population is still inevitably growing as more children are born here.  So unless we want some sort of draconian policy restricting childbirth, the question is not whether more people will live in California, but where they will live.  Unfortunately, because of the crushing unaffordability of California’s coastal and urban areas, the vast majority of population growth has been moving to inland areas like the Central Valley, High Desert and Inland Empire with cheaper housing, but much higher water needs.  Promoting dense infill development of affordable housing in coastal urban areas would help increase economic opportunity for working families while creating the serious systemic reform we need to manage California’s water resources long term.

2) Keep fracking from endangering our water supply

Land is rapidly being snatched up across the Central Valley and Central Coast to open new oil wells above the Monterey Shale.  Fracking uses significant amounts of water (70 million gallons in California last year), but the bigger problem is that it threatens to pollute our limited water supply with the undisclosed chemicals used in new drilling methods.  Fracking produces massive amounts of toxic wastewater, with the challenge of wastewater disposal becoming a ticking time bomb which could contaminate our dwindling clean water supplies.  Oil companies have shown a blatant disregard for California’s weak regulations, with hundreds of illegal wastewater pits being discovered right next to farmland and above groundwater supplies in rural California.  Yet along with agribusiness, the oil industry  was also given a free pass on Governor Brown’s new water restrictions.

But even worse, oil in the Monterey Shale is as dirty as the Canadian Tar Sands.  Fracking California’s shale creates the potential to put over 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, nearly as much as the Keystone XL pipeline, driving forward the climate change that is fueling this extreme drought.  The science is clear that climate change increases the frequency and severity of catastrophic drought in California.  There can no longer be any doubt for drought-stricken Californians that the climate is changing, and if we want to keep it from getting worse, we need to stop the relentless digging for more dirty energy.

3) Stop subsidizing water-guzzling agribusiness

While agribusiness uses 80% of California’s water, not all farms are created equal when it comes to water consumption.  Growers choose between planting different crops, some of which use many times more water than others.  Even within the same crop, different growers choose to use more and less efficient irrigation methods.  Like any business, California’s growers are making basic mathematical calculations of how to maximize their profits.  So when agribusiness is provided artificially cheap water by the government, typically at lower rates than you and I pay as residential consumers, growers pick profitable but thirsty crops, and cheap but wasteful irrigation methods.

Anyone who’s passed an intro economics class would tell you that when you have a shortage of something, the price is naturally supposed to go up.  But agribusiness, with its powerful lobbyists in Sacramento, has long been coddled by lawmakers and protected from actually paying fair market prices for water (big business is always all about the free market until they’re not).  By keeping agricultural water prices artificially low, the government is directly massively subsidizing drought-causing industries like almonds and cattle.  It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond and 10% of the state’s water goes to the almond industry alone.  A pound of beef takes 2500 gallons to produce, and one hamburger is about as much water as you use to shower for a month.

I’m sympathetic to the concern that raising the cost of water as an input to growing food will raise costs at the grocery store for struggling families.  It wouldn’t be hard to design a simple policy to keep overall food prices low while shifting growers to more drought resistant crops.  California could put an emergency drought surcharge on the sale of water to agribusiness, then take that revenue and use it to subsidize low-water-use fruits and vegetables at the point of sale to the consumer.  A grower then faces a different calculation to decide whether they should plant another crop instead of almonds, or whether they should invest in that new irrigation system.  This would shift the behavior of both food consumers and food producers towards more drought resistant foods, as prices of water-intensive foods go up while prices of water-efficient foods go down.  For example in Ventura County where I live (the 10th biggest agriculture producing county in the US), that could mean land shifting from water sucking strawberries, to other major local crops that are more drought resistant, like lemons and avocados.  A policy like this could even effectively make it easier for low-income California families to afford healthy foods, a major challenge facing poverty-stricken communities.

We need to step up and take real responsibility for a serious long-term water management plan if we want to sustain life for 40 million people in California and growing.  There is simply no way to protect our water supply for future generations without meaningful systemic reforms addressing agricultural water use, oil drilling, and housing development.  Yes, they would raise howls of protest from some of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful political interests: agribusiness, oil companies, and real estate developers.  But allowing money and corporate interests to control our politics is what’s got us stuck in this climate change mess in the first place.  At some point, we have to stop fucking around with our planet, put on our big kid pants, and do the right thing.

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