California drought pits farmers vs. cities. But neither is the biggest water victim.
Last week the city of San Francisco declared an emergency, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee declared the region’s water supply “crisis” on Tuesday. The reason? A heat wave is forecast throughout much of the Bay Area, with the mercury expected to hit 115 degrees or higher.
Just this week, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill that will allow farmers to use more water, but cities have little recourse.
“Farmers have a lot of water,” says Paul DePetro, a San Francisco-based water policy analyst. “But it’s not distributed enough to support the growth of other water users.”
The Bay Area is California’s agricultural stronghold, with half the state’s produce produced here. That production is also its largest source of water demand. Yet, in the past few weeks, cities have complained that agriculture is not being served enough.
“It’s an unusual situation” in that San Diego, the state’s fifth-largest city, and Sacramento, its second-largest, are on the brink of municipal water shortages.
There are various theories for their water woes. One, which has gained traction during the drought, is agriculture’s water-use habits.
For decades, according to a recent article in the journal Science, the vast majority of California’s water for agriculture has gone to grow big fields. Farmers don’t need that much to grow most crops – with some exceptions, like strawberries, water tends to be more expensive as a dollar per-ton increases.
But the water needed to grow the massive fields has led to a “fierce competition in the water space,” says James Mairi, a University of California, Berkeley, researcher who studies the region’s water issues.
That’s because California farms grow crops that also need irrigation. And they have to, since