Basu: During drought, California’s farms must do their part

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Pia Basu, Columnist

For the first time in the state’s history, California has instituted mandatory water restrictions, put into place by Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1. This past winter was the hottest on record for California, with average temperatures 4.4 degrees warmer than the state’s average for the 20th century. The restrictions apply to residents, businesses and farms, with the goal of reducing overall water usage by 25 percent.

California has been in a state of emergency since January due to the Sierra Nevada snowpack’s record low water content — the cause of the historic drought and the reason behind the unprecedented restrictions. When imposing the restrictions, Brown said, “We’re in a new era. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.”

There is no denying that the drought is and should be deeply concerning to everyone, resident of California or not. Researchers have found that in addition to the situation in California worsening, if climate change progresses at this rate, a “megadrought” is in store for the Southwest and central Plains in the not-too-distant future.

Restricting residential water use is not a bad thing, since everyone should be cognizant of the fact that water is an extremely finite resource. However, when evaluating the breakdown of water usage in California, the largest contributor to water consumption is agriculture, chiefly industrial and large-scale farming. There’s no denying that California is an agricultural powerhouse, as the fifth largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities in the world.

More than 90 percent of water used in California is associated with agricultural products, and a significant portion of that water goes toward the creation of livestock feed. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of water use comes from households. The governor took a good first step, but it is nowhere close to enough. Even if all household water use was to stop, factory farming would still drain California dry.

The use of water for agriculture in California must be reevaluated. Doing this wouldn’t be easy, as the agricultural lobby is powerful both within the state and in Washington, D.C. Farms have already been ordered to provide information on their groundwater use, but overall, the government’s regulations on the agricultural industry remain vague.

To continue to meet national and international demand for their food products, as well as to continue producing sustainably, agricultural groundwater needs to be strictly regulated by the state’s government as soon as possible in an effort to remove as many wasteful practices as possible. Since factory farms in California represent a substantial portion of the state’s economy and water consumption, the state government must focus on the agricultural industry to most effectively and fairly curb excessive water usage.

Pia Basu is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected].  If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].