Lions, Tigers and Farms, Oh my!

By Tim Johnson

Ripped from the headlines of editorials, newscasts and opinion pieces we all must be made aware of the next great threat in this drought – farms! Can you believe they use 80 percent of the water? Even worse, they aren’t required to make any cuts while their urban neighbors are forced to make do with 25 percent less. The outrage!

Away from institutions where comments echo like a basketball dribbled in an empty gym, the response in most homes is “Hmmm, really?”

A close look at the evidence tells another story.

Refuting the claim that agriculture uses 80 percent of the water has become a regular, if not favorite, past time of mine. I love showing people the power of context. The 80 percent figure is based on what water wonks call “developed water”. This is the water we hold behind dams, put in canals and pump across the state. Yes, agriculture does use about 8 out of every 10 gallons of developed water.

But wait, is that all the water? No. According to the 2013 California Water Plan, this state on average receives about 200 million acre-feet of water annually from precipitation and imports from Colorado, Oregon and Mexico.  Agricultural water use totals about 33 million acre-feet in an average year, which is about 17 percent of the water received in the state. 

Now for the new fear – farmers haven’t been mandated by the Governor to make the same cuts as urban dwellers! Once the red–faced farmer’s truck comes to a soft landing in the ditch, you get a far different story, one clearly visible as you stand on the bare ground at their farm. Farmers have been cutting water use. Long before the current mandated cuts to our cities.

Just last year, rice farmers in California left 23 percent of their acres unplanted. This year, my guess is it will be closer to 30 or 35 percent. Other crops have similar stories. Even those that were able to keep their crops alive, such as orchards, did so at great cost to the trees. Water-starved oranges and almonds produce far less fruit and nuts the following year.

So just like in Oz, the fear of threats from woods proves to be not so real after all.

As all of California faces this next and more severe year of drought, time and energy would be better spent focusing on solutions that match the magnitude of the crisis, rather than sowing fear in fallow fields.


Tim Johnson, CRC President & CEO