California’s Drought: A Wasteful System

Because of this extreme drought, California has been hit with a massive water shortage, as most of its water sources are at record low levels. The message from the politicians has been that individuals are to blame for massive amounts of water wasting. In March, Governor Brown issued an emergency water bill to reduce city water use by 25 percent. All of these reductions are useful, but they will make no impact on the water shortage in the state. Household water use only accounts for less than eight percent of total water use – not enough to make a dent in the water shortage.

The vast majority of water use in California is in the agricultural industry, which uses about 80 percent of the state’s water. In Governor Brown’s bill, agricultural water use is not reduced at all. But California has the most productive agriculture in the U.S., supplying over thirty percent of the country’s vegetables and sixty percent of the country’s fruits and nuts. California is also the largest dairy producing state, and among the top five in other animal agriculture. About 47 percent of all water use in California goes to the meat and dairy industry. The total profits from agricultural industries is over $30 billion per year.

If the drought is likely to continue and the amount of water going to agriculture is not going to be reduced, then where will all of the water come from? The emergency bill proposes funding to assist the construction of 15 desalinization plants along the coast from the San Francisco Bay to San Diego. Desalinization is an extremely expensive method of converting salt-water to drinking water. If implemented, it will significantly increase the cost of water to households. The process creates massive amounts of a salty brine residue that gets dumped back into the ocean. Researchers warn that desalinization plants pose severe threats to marine life and change the biology of the ocean near the facilities. This is a desperate measure that will take years to complete, and it simply forces ordinary people to pay for the water corporations waste, further harming ocean life in the process.

California’s water sources of aquifers, wells, lakes, rivers and streams are running dry not simply because of this current drought. But in order for California’s massive agribusiness to make its money, it needs huge amounts of water. California’s water supply has been depleted only because it has been pumped to these massive agricultural companies so they can make billions of dollars every year. The majority of California’s agriculture is grown in the most severe drought areas, in desert-like conditions.

Water for much of the agricultural industry is paid for by state and federal subsidies. Many farms get so much water pumped to them that they even sell it back for a profit to local water companies. In some towns in the central valley, water for households has been cut off completely, either because there just isn’t enough water, or because it has become too expensive. In one town, Porterville, most residents have had to resort to buying bottled water for household use.

But agriculture isn’t the whole story. The oil industry is estimated to require two million gallons of water per day. And in the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), used to get at deposits of oil and natural gas trapped underground, every single fracking well requires about eight to ten million gallons of water just to become operational.

The real problem with water use in California lies at the heart of this economic system. Under capitalism, corporations treat vital resources as raw materials for profit. When everything is produced for a profit, waste is just part of the process. An estimated half of the water used for agriculture is wasted, and millions of tons of food per year are destroyed either because it rots on the shelves or it was discarded to keep prices from going too low.

The drought is a symptom of a deeper problem and no band-aid solutions will be able to change this. We need a system designed to meet human need, not corporate greed.