THICKER THAN WATER….Brad Plumer hits on one of my pet peeves today: the fact that drought policies (and drought press coverage) inevitably focuses on residential water use even though it’s, literally, a drop in the bucket:
As [Jon] Gertner notes in passing, it’s farming, and not residential areas, that consumes the vast majority of water in the [Southwest] (90 percent of Colorado’s water goes toward agriculture). You’d think, then, that inefficient agriculture practices would get most of the scrutiny here. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, most irrigated farmland in the area — in California, Colorado, and Wyoming — is watered via flood irrigation, the least efficient method out there. Basically, farmers dig a bunch of trenches and dump water in them. In the short run, it’s cheap and easy; in the long run, it tends to waste water and deplete topsoil.
Subsidies are part of the problem here: Large farms often qualify for taxpayer-subsidized irrigation water, paying as little as 10 percent of the full cost. That, in turn, discourages conservation: “A 1997 study by researchers at Cornell University suggests that more than 50 percent of irrigation water never reaches crops because of losses during pumping and transport.” The subsidies also encourage farmers to grow water-guzzling crops like alfalfa, a crop that sucks up about 20 percent of California’s water but comprises only a tiny part of the economy (it’s mostly used to feed cows). I’d like to see more on the subject, but this seems like a major place to focus on, no?
Unfortunately, this is an almost impossible problem to address. Reducing agricultural water use by 20% would basically solve all our problems, but it can’t be done because water rights are controlled by an almost impenetrable maze of local water districts, Spanish land grants, English common law, multi-state compacts, acts of Congress, court rulings at every level imaginable, overlapping jurisdictions, and local, state and federal environmental regulations. And that’s not even counting the vast corporate lobbying forces that would be at work even if the legal Gordian knot weren’t.
So it’s hopeless, I guess. But that doesn’t stop me from bitching about it. And it sure doesn’t justify this massive Bush administration giveaway to California agribusiness, which has to be read to be believed.