California drought pits farmers vs. cities. But neither is the biggest water victim

Oct 3, 2022 at 3:40pm

Hayley Smith

As California fast approaches what is likely to be a fourth year of punishing drought, residents are being asked to cut their water use to historic lows. But while city dwellers are rising to the occasion — including record reductions in Los Angeles in August — urban consumption still represents only a small fraction of total water use in the state.

Where the rest of it goes depends on whom you ask. The California Department of Water Resources says 50% of the state’s water goes toward environmental purposes, 40% toward agriculture and 10% toward urban areas.

But experts say that calculation tells only part of the story, especially because the environment’s share tends to shrink dramatically during dry years. Instead, a clearer picture begins to emerge when you consider water designated for domestic and business use. Of that, 80% goes toward agriculture and 20% toward urban areas.

While agriculture’s share may seem outsized to some urban residents being asked to let their lawns go brown, experts say the sector is also dealing with cuts, shortages and shifts brought on by drought and climate change, even as it continues to play a major role in feeding the state and nation. California’s environment, however, is often overlooked in the noisy debate over urban and agricultural water use, as its constituents — plants, animals, rivers and aquifers — have little voice in the matter.

The 50-40-10 breakdown “is misleading,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder and senior fellow of the Pacific Institute. “Because first of all, it implies that we, as a society, have made a decision to give half of the water to the environment. When what’s in fact the reality is that we have taken 50% of the water from the environment. The environment used to have it all.”


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