“California can learn much from Israel on how to conserve water, manage drought better,” an op ed in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee said. At first blush, yes, California can learn a great deal about water management from the Israelis. They turned a desert into lush, productive agricultural lands. Israeli’s invented drip irrigation technology in the 1960’s, and have perfected desalination, water recycling, reclamation, wastewater reuse.
The op ed by Ron Hassner, who teaches international conflict and religion at U.C. Berkeley, notes this as well: “Countries facing far harsher climates and much scarcer water supply, like Israel, have adopted straightforward policies to avoid such crises. We should learn from their example.”
“Having grown up in Israel, I smile wryly whenever I drive across the Sacramento River and think of California’s alleged ‘water shortage,'” Hassner said. “Israel’s only river, the Jordan River, is a small stream that flows at a rate of 565 cubic foot per second. The Sacramento River, in contrast, pours 489,000 cubic feet of water into the Bay every second, nearly 1,000 times the amount of water for half as many people. There are dozens of other large rivers in Northern California alone.”
Hassner is right about California’s abundance of water. But rather than address water storage, he goes after California’s agricultural community: “California farming policy bears prime responsibility for our water shortage,” he said. “California agriculture uses up four times as much water as urban users.”
The most glaring omission in Hassner’s op ed is where the state’s water is really going – the state has been letting water out of reservoirs across California for months now. And it’s not going to farmers, growers, ranchers or urban use. Environmental policy says the water “flows” from reservoirs are necessary to produce a rebound of endangered Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. However, these policies are a failure as neither species have been collected in all of the latest trawling surveys, where they spend several days a month searching in more than 200 spots. This practice of releasing water and hoping fish improve, has been unsuccessful for nearly 30 years, according to California water expert Kristi Diener. Both species are close to extinction.
People forget the winter of 2019 brought 200 percent of average rains and snow pack. Yet the state still held back on water to farmers, and residents are facing rationing, the Globe reported May 2019.
Hassner omitted that the State of California directs about 50 percent of its developed water supply for the environment, including wild river flows, managed wetlands and wildlife preserves, habitat and water quality control for fish, and required Delta outflows, according to the Department of Water Resource. Water is diverted in times of drought and times of plenty to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, leaving much less for irrigation or for Californians to drink.
Legislation passed in 2017 and signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown orders that residents will be limited to 55 gallons per day by 2030, and 50 gallons by 2050.
This is happening at the hands of man, not climate change. Water shortages, lack of groundwater recharge, contaminated drinking water, and subsidence are all man made in California.
Water flowing to the ocean is now being drained from New Melones, as Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom Dams are already tapped out. This is an unprecedented release of water stored in New Melones that has alarmed Oakdale and South San Joaquin Water Districts, Diener reported. She explained:
“Lake Oroville has been drained so low that it is predicted it will not be able to generate any hydro-power at all by August or September. The clean energy Oroville’s Hyatt Power Station produces is enough to fully power 800,000 homes. That power will have to come from other sources if possible, or there will be an increase in outages. Oroville is the largest reservoir of the State Water Project, and has the tallest dam in the U.S. It was filled to capacity in 2017, and again less than two years ago in 2019, but has been emptied to meet radical environmental requirements that are supposedly going to bring back hundreds of thousands of delta smelt and Coho Salmon. Both fish are nearly extinct since the multitude of fish protection laws began piling up on the books nearly 30 years ago. It is rare for either species to even be collected in trawling surveys, with just four smelt found since July of 2018. A smelt’s lifespan is generally about a year.”
Hassner said, “Nuts are the most notorious culprit. California produces 80% of the world’s almonds — 2 billion pounds a year — at a staggering cost of 2,000 gallons of water per pound of almonds. Ten percent of California’s water is guzzled up by almonds. That alone equals the volume of water used by all of California’s cities combined.”
His conclusion? “It’s preposterous to expect individual households to take the lead in conserving water rather than revise our state’s industrial and farming policies. In the midst of successive droughts, California is exporting its water overseas in the form of produce,” Hassner said. The solution to our water crisis cannot be shorter showers. A fistful of California almonds, shipped to Europe or Asia, uses up more water than the average shower.”
According to the California Almond Board, “Almonds make up less than 13 percent of the state’s total irrigated farmland but use only 9 percent of the state’s ag water – less than their proportionate share.” They also note:
- California produces 99% of the nation’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, raisins, kiwifruit, olives, cling peaches, pistachios, dried plums, pomegranates, sweet rice, and walnuts.
- California’s top ten acreage crops include hay, almonds, grapes, wheat, corn, rice, walnuts, cotton, processing tomatoes, and pistachios. California’s fruits and nuts use 34% of the state’s ag water and account for 45% of its revenue.
- Through Almond Board research programs, almond farmers have been funding water efficiency research since 1982 with over 90 projects funded to date.
- Over the past 20 years, almond growers have improved their water use efficiency by 33%, producing more crop per drop.
- Almonds thrive in Mediterranean climates like California. Unlike other crops, there aren’t many places where almonds can be grown worldwide.
Does it matter to Hassner that California is home to 7,600 almond farms and 102 almond processors, 90% of which are multi-generational family farms?
Hassner says “if we refuse to recycle water, store more water or divert it away from irresponsible agriculture, we have to invest in desalination.”
And what about the pot industry? One could argue that growing marijuana is irresponsible agriculture as the state’s food production is deliberately threatened by political appointees. “With marijuana now legal to grow and use, no one is addressing the vast amounts of water used in pot growth and production,” NBC reported in 2014. “The average marijuana plant needs about 6 gallons of water a day, depending on its size and whether it’s grown inside or outside, according to a local report that cited research.”
Have California officials decided we need pot more than food? “Streams in Northern California’s prime marijuana-growing watersheds likely will be sucked dry this year if pot cultivation isn’t curtailed, experts say,” the Daily Kos reported in 2014, citing the same research. “’Essentially, marijuana can consume all the water. Every bit of it,’ said state Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Bauer, who specializes in salmon recovery and is working on a study of the issue.”
“It’s preposterous to expect individual households to take the lead in conserving water rather than revise our state’s industrial and farming policies,” Hassner erroneously concludes. “In the midst of successive droughts, California is exporting its water overseas in the form of produce. The solution to our water crisis cannot be shorter showers. A fistful of California almonds, shipped to Europe or Asia, uses up more water than the average shower.”
Families and urban water users did not waste their way into a water shortage and cannot conserve their way out. “Saving 25% of a 10% urban use equals 2.5%, Diener points out. “Ongoing water releases continue to put fish over people, and both are suffering. More water rights holders than ever before are about to receive stop-using-water notices.”
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