May 5, 2008

Time to Talk about Water, Again

This weekend I went to the California Geographical Society's conference in Chico, California. I presented my research on sustainable dog walking and heard some pretty rad papers, too. By far the highlight of my weekend was the restoration field trip to Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve. Field director Paul Maslin led an amazing hike during which I learned about the role of fire in management, water runoff techniques, and two new, exciting ways to kill invasive broom (a power wench and quartering plus weed wrench). I would love to work with the folks at Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve, maybe I'll look into doing some research there or something.

On the way to Chico I drove (in a friend's hybrid, thanks Jen!) through the Central Valley, observing the farmland and vegetation. The day before I left I read that California had the driest March/April in recorded history and that the Sierra snow pack (our summer water source) is at 67%. That's dismal in a state of 36 million people. The past three rainy seasons have been pretty erratic. We had huge rainfalls in 2006, low in 2007, and low again in 2008. Urban agencies like East Bay Municipal Utilities District are already preparing to impose water rationing.

If you've been reading this blog for very long, then a lot in this post is a repeat of previous info. I think it's super important stuff though, so here goes:
I'm a proponent of water rationing rules like watering late or early, no car washing or lawn watering. I actually think most of these rules should be permanent in some way. We have to be realistic about our landscape here: green summer lawns are not a sustainable option in most of California. Blake and I are devoted to using gray water for the garden this summer and that's working out great so far!

But while I support water rationing of household users, I was really annoyed to see all of the agricultural waste as I was driving through the Central Valley. About 80% of California's water use goes to agriculture. The number one water use in California is irrigated pasture, number two is alfalfa. I can't eat either one of those and I choose not to eat the product that they're grown for (beef). The third use of water in California is rice. Now I do eat rice, but the majority of our rice goes to dog food and beer in California. I also question the wisdom of creating wide surface area rice paddies in our arid climate, where evaporation rates necessitate constant irrigation. The fourth highest use of water in California is cotton, which we also do not eat.

I don't dispute the signs the line I5 claiming that "Farmers Feed America". Our society's choice to consume so high on the food chain, as in beef, pork, lamb, and chicken) is as much to blame for our water woes as the wasteful methods of big agriculture in California. But seeing spray head irrigation systems watering fields in the middle of a hot day just makes me want to scream. If urban and suburban lawn lovers can't water in the middle of the day, then why can big agriculture toss our precious water into the air during the peak period for evaporation? What the fuck? California has multiple water laws that give agriculture some crazy cheap prices for water. These cheap prices make it more economically efficient for big agriculture to waste water with old irrigation systems rather than moving forward into drip irrigation. We have loads of technological advances to make agriculture less wasteful, but our huge subsidies don't require these upgrades or other sustainability changes.

It's been a dry year already. I watched tractors leave plumes of dust drifting behind them. Plumes, not just a tractor height trail, but 75 foot high columns of dust. These particles suspend in the air of the valley, creating huge air quality issues. Oi.

I'd like to say that I love and appreciate our farmers. And there are some amazing folks out there leading the industry to sustainability. I'm not solely blaming farmers for water waste. I see this as part of that trend in low funding for conservation. We need sustainable farming not only for our land but also for our jobs. We've got Schwarzenegger proposing more dams, but we could save loads of money and water by helping our farmers make their crops sustainable. Creating more supply will not create prudent use of water. It's the wrong idea.

We're all responsible for making these changes in water policy happen. Did you know that 10% of water use is in leaks? Or that it takes over 2,000 gallons of water to make a serving of steak but only 36 for a serving of soybeans. Or that it takes 3-5 liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water? We can all do something. Post your ideas or resources. I'll start with referring you to the Greywater Guerrillas.


Anonymous said...

There are so many things wrong with the wastefulness of California (and the rest of America, and the people of Earth at large for that manner) that this comment would be as long as your post, were I to speak my complete mind.
However: well said!
N. & J.

Anonymous said...

i want to start eating/ cooking fruit and vegies that are in season. but i have no idea when things are in season. do u have any idea how i could find out. i live in australia by the way.

rachel kesel said...

hey jills,
i'd take a trip to a farmer's market to get an idea of what's in season. a lot of farmers like to talk about their crops and land so you might get some advice from them.

a lot depends on your local climate too. so getting in touch with your local foodshed is a must. again, farmer's markets, almanacs, or a good grocery store that buys local would probably get you started.

Anonymous said...

Are you for real? While I respect your opinion, I couldn't help but ask myself how many times you've actually stopped, climbed out of your little green car and spent some time in a working farm rather than just drive by one. As a lamb producer and a farmer "evil doer" in your book I wonder if you could bring yourself to tell your employee with a family to feed that he will no longer be needed because the ground he's spent 25 years caring for has been taken by a government entity with the sole purpose being to claim water rights in order to supply water to a bunch of city folk who one day will wonder why they're paying 20 dollars for a head of lettuce that's being brought in from China.
Good Luck with that!

rachel kesel said...

bianca, sounds like you've been reading with a chip on your shoulder. i don't have a "little green car", i have a bicycle. but i did refer to a borrowed hybrid that i drove to chico for a conference on sustainability. i do actually have some limited but valuable farm experience, and as i said in the post, i have a huge family with many farmers in it, from both of my grandfathers to my uncles and cousins. my mom grew up on a farm that i spent time on as a kid.

i certainly didn't call anyone an "evil doer", and i never appreciate shrill distortions. i did point out that it takes far more water to produce flesh based protein than plant based protein. and frankly, i think i was pretty diplomatic.

in fact, i'd say i was much more diplomatic than you. why pit "a bunch of city folk" against rural communities? we don't have enough land for everyone to live in rural areas. we'd be turning all of our rural areas into suburbs even faster than we are currently. i started the water parts of the post by talking about domestic use and then examined agriculture further. i talked not about how farmers are "evil doers" but about how even our food choices affect water. so your painting of the saintly farm worker "with a family to feed" versus the ignorant "city folk" must be coming from elsewhere.

you talk about water rights and believe me, i think california's water laws are a huge problem. charging some irrigation districts ridiculously low prices based on contracts from the 1800's is total crap. there's no incentive to conserve if it's cheaper to waste water than to upgrade to a new irrigation system. we need a holistic approach to water in california. preferably one that looks at watersheds instead assuming that we can send more northern water south.

you mentioned lettuce from china and i really felt at that point that you just don't read thoroughly. i always support buying local. i support local farms by buying directly from them at farmer's markets. in this post i suggest that we stop subsidizing water and start subsidizing efficient irrigation systems for farmers (which would make it economically possible for farmers to pay a fair price for their water).

i just have no idea what you're on about.