Friday, August 08, 2014

A Hundred Billion Gallons Of Water Exported From Drought Stricken California To China

That caught my eye.  Was there a water pipeline?  Ships carrying water to China?

If so, we'd all know about it I'm sure.  The full claim is this:
"A hundred billion gallons of water per year is being exported in the form of alfalfa from California," argues Professor Robert Glennon from Arizona College of Law.
You can read the details in a February 2014 BBC post.

It seems that focusing on the water use was a good way to get people's attention.

A Las Vegas television station has a long post on this dated May describing how the Chinese demand for alfalfa has caused California farmers to switch to the water intensive crop.  The post raises possible changes in the water agreements.
"Glennon hopes deals can be cut in which cities like Las Vegas pay farmers to use water more efficiently, still grow their hay for export, but leave a little water for everyone else.
“Farmers use just over 80 percent of the water in the country. If you include livestock, it’s 85 percent. If that 85 percent were cut down to 78, say 7 percent, that would double the entire nation's consumption for domestic, commercial, and industrial,” Glennon said.
[I had some trouble understanding the numbers and emailed Professor Glennon.  He replied that municipal and industrial use only comes to between 5 and 10 percent so a 7 percent reduction by agriculture would about double the supply.]

Photo from a  recent flight to LA.  I was struck by the contrast between irrigated land and the unirrigated land. Now I'm wondering if the green is alfalfa.

Seeing Water In Alfalfa

Critical for me is the indirect nature of this water transfer.  Stopping farmers from shipping alfalfa to China (to feed cattle there) would seem a violation of the farmers' rights.  But if they were just shipping the water, you know there'd be a giant outcry. 

'Seeing' involves more than noting the obvious.  It requires seeing beyond the superficial.  It requires a brain that asks questions. 

Glennon, Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy in the Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona,  is a water specialist and has found a way to catch the public's attention by translating alfalfa into the water needed to grow it.


And not everyone is happy about this.   Dan Putnam, Alfalfa & Forage Specialist at UC Davis takes on what he sees as an attack on alfalfa:
Exporting Water a new Angle?  The targeting of exports with regards to water represents a new  shift in the ongoing Mark Twain-ian  water fights over the best use of water (“Whisky’s for  drinking, water’s for fightin’ over”). Do we really want to go there? What about the embodied  ‘water’ in all of the goods (including food)  imported  into the US?
What about exporting water in  the form of silicon chips?  Is exporting ‘water’ in the form of almonds, citrus, wine or alfalfa hay  to consumers in China, Japan, or  Europe, really any different than exporting ‘water’ in the form of California food products to New York, or for that matter, Phoenix or Las Vegas?
What is the  moral or economic issue here?  Farmers depend upon these markets.  Most economists laud the  value of exports to the US economy, and agriculture is one of the bright spots in US exports,  which have struggled  to match the onslaught of imports from (guess where)  -  China.
[Note, this is from an undated pdf file.]

Putnam doesn't seem to totally disagree with the idea of thinking about crops and even manufactured goods in terms of the water used to produce them.  His main concern it seems, and this is reasonable for someone connected with the California Alfalfa Workgroup, is that alfalfa has been singled out from among all the other water users. 

Putnam also notes this trend is simply following the market.
"Alfalfa receives no subsidy  and the crop  mostly follows free market principles  –  so growers seek the best  market for their  crop. These markets represent important economic opportunities for California  farmers." 
Alfalfa crops, per se, may not receive subsidies, but the water allocations in the southwest are not market driven.  They are agreements between governments, old agreements that allocated a huge proportion of the water to agriculture.  Putnam himself acknowledges this indirectly:
The ability to pay has,  and always will,  favor urban  water  use over agricultural use.  But this  is not specific to alfalfa  –  there are virtually no  food-producing  enterprises that can  compete economically with  urban demand for water.  Food takes a lot of water to produce,  whether  its lettuce, walnuts or alfalfa,  either from rain or irrigation.  Questions arise,  though,  about the long-term  consequences of degrading our agricultural capability by moving water from  food production to urban use.
So, there are market forces and government forces involved in what appears to be a paradox in California water use.  By the way, government water allocations to farmers have been cut during the current drought.


  1. So does this alfalfa go for the Chinese dairy or beef industries? Or is there another use I'm missing?


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