For the past five years California has been ablaze with conflict caused because of a drought stretching the length of the state. Water is a limited resource and when it is stretched thin, battles can ensue as to who should receive what and who is abusing the precious commodity. The agricultural community has taken a lot of this wrath because they are a very small group and use lots of water to produce crops and raise livestock. Based on two sources of data I have reviewed, I think the blanket charge is out of context and untrue.
The USGS recently put forth a data visualization that compiled water use data per state from 1950 through 2010. Beyond total usage, sub-categories pertaining to thermometric, public supply, irrigation and industrial were identified. What trends can we identify from California’s data? In terms of irrigation usage verses public usage, their paths head in two different directions. Irrigation has dropped by over 30%, while public usage has risen by over 17%.
The use of fresh water for irrigation has been on the decline since it peaked in 1980. Given the falling trend, I would expect that once the 2015 measurement of water used for irrigation is released, California’s level of usage will be at or very near where it was in 1950. While this decline in usage has occurred, crop production figures have steadily increased from the 1950’s all the way up until 2014. The graph below shows inflation adjusted crop and livestock sales from 1950 through 2015 based on USDA data. Since the mid-80’s steady growth is seen up to 2014. The crop year of 2015 would have been at the ‘height’ of the current drought. With the cost of irrigation water soaring throughout the state many fields were left idle. This explains why the dramatic drop in activity is seen.
As it appears California is coming out of its drought based on 2015-16 rain fall and how well the state has started the 2016-17 season. Yet, even if the conditions change and the drought fades from our collective focus, it should be remembered that agricultural producers have played a major role in the reduction of water usage for over three decades, while general public usage has increased over the same period. The numbers don’t lie.