[Epistemic status: Low confidence. I have found numbers and stared at them until they made sense to me, but I have no education in this area. Tell me if I’m wrong.]
There has recently been a lot of dumb fighting over who uses how much water in California, so I thought I would see if it made more sense as an infographic sort of thing:
Sources include Understanding Water Use In California, Inputs To Farm Production, California Water Usage In Crops, Urban Water Use Efficiency, Water Use In California, and Water: Who Uses How Much. There are some contradictions, probably caused by using sources from different years, and although I’m pretty confident this is right on an order of magnitude scale I’m not sure about a percentage point here or there. But that having been said:
On a state-sized level, people measure water in acre-feet, where an acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an area of one acre to a depth of one foot. California receives a total of 80 million acre-feet of water per year. Of those, 23 million are stuck in wild rivers (the hydrological phenomenon, not the theme park). These aren’t dammed and don’t have aqueducts to them so they can’t be used for other things. There has been a lot of misdirection over this recently, since having pristine wild rivers that fish swim in seems like an environmental cause, and so you can say that “environmentalists have locked up 23 million acre-feet of California water”. This is not a complete lie; if not for environmentalism, maybe some of these rivers would have been dammed up and added to the water system. But in practice you can’t dam every single river and most of these are way off in the middle of nowhere far away from the water-needing population. People’s ulterior motives shape whether or not they add these to the pot; I’ve put them in a different color blue to mark this.
Aside from that, another 14 million acre-feet are potentially usable, but deliberately diverted to environmental or recreational causes. These include 7.2 million for “recreational rivers”, apparently ones that people like to boat down, 1.6 million to preserve wetlands, and 5.6 million to preserve the Sacramento River Delta. According to environmentalists, this Sacramento River Delta water is non-negotiable, because if we stopped sending fresh water there the entire Sacramento River delta would turn salty and it would lead to some kind of catastrophe that would threaten our ability to get fresh water into the system at all.
34 million acre-feet of water are diverted to agriculture. The most water-expensive crop is alfalfa, which requires 5.3 million acre-feet a year. If you’re asking “Who the heck eats 5.3 million acre-feet of alfalfa?” the answer is “cows”. A bunch of other crops use about 2 million acre-feet each.
All urban water consumption totals 9 million acre-feet. Of those, 2.4 million are for commercial and industrial institutions, 3.8 million are for lawns, and 2.8 million are personal water use by average citizens in their houses. In case you’re wondering about this latter group, by my calculations all water faucets use 0.5 million, all toilets use 0.9 million, all showers use 0.5 million, leaks lose 0.3 million, and the remaining 0.6 million covers everything else – washing machines, dishwashers, et cetera.
Since numbers like these are hard to think about, it might be interesting to put them in a more intuitive form. The median California family earns $70,000 a year – let’s take a family just a little better-off than that who are making $80,000 so we can map it on nicely to California’s yearly water income of 80 million acre-feet.
The unusable 23 million acre-feet which go into wild rivers and never make it into the pot correspond to the unusable taxes the California family will have to pay. So our family is left with $57,000 post-tax income.
In this analogy, California is spending $14,000 on environment and recreation, $34,000 on agriculture, and $9,000 on all urban areas. All household uses – toilets, showers, faucets, etc – only add up to about $2,800 of their budget.
There is currently a water shortfall of about 6 million acre-feet per year, which is being sustained by exploiting non-renewable groundwater and other sources. This is the equivalent of our slightly-richer-than-average family having to borrow $6,000 from the bank each year to get by.
Armed with this information, let’s see what we can make of some recent big news stories.
Apparently we are supposed to be worried about fracking depleting water in California. ThinkProgress reports that Despite Historic Drought, California Used 70 Million Gallons Of Water For Fracking Last Year. Similar concerns are raised by RT, Huffington Post, and even The New York Times. But 70 million gallons equals 214 acre-feet. Remember, alfalfa production uses 5.3 million acre feet. In our family-of-four analogy above, all the fracking in California costs them about a quarter. Worrying over fracking is like seeing an upper middle class family who are $6,000 in debt, and freaking out because one of their kids bought a gumball from a machine.
Apparently we are also supposed to be worried about Nestle bottling water in California. ABC News writes an article called Nestle Needs To Stop Bottling Water In Drought-Stricken California, Advocacy Group Says, about a group called the “Courage Campaign” who have gotten 135,000 signatures on a petition saying that Nestle needs to stop “bottling the scarce resource straight from the heart of California’s drought and selling it for profit.” Salon goes even further – their article is called Nestle’s Despicable Water Crisis Profiteering: How It’s Making A Killing While California Is Dying Of Thirst, and as always with this sort of thing Jezebel also has to get in on the action. But Nestle’s plant uses only 150 acre-feet, about one forty-thousandth the amount used to grow alfalfa, and the equivalent of about a dime to our family of four.
The Wall Street Journal says that farms are a scapegoat for the water crisis, because in fact the real culprits are environmentalists. They say that “A common claim is that agriculture consumes about 80% of ‘developed’ water supply, yet this excludes the half swiped off the top for environmental purposes.” But environmentalism only swipes half if you count among that half all of the wild rivers in the state – that is, every drop of water not collected, put in an aqueduct, and used to irrigate something is a “concession” to environmentalists. A more realistic figure for environmental causes is the 14 million acre-feet marked “Other Environmental” on the map above, and even that includes concessions to recreational boaters and to whatever catastrophe is supposed to happen if we can’t keep the Sacramento Delta working properly. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much of California’s water goes to environmental causes, but half is definitely an exaggeration.
Wired is concerned that the federal government is ordering California to spend 12,000 acre-feet of water to save six fish (h/t Alyssa Vance). Apparently these are endangered fish in some river who need to get out to the Pacific to breed, and the best way to help them do that is to fill up the river with 12,000 acre feet of water. That’s about $12 on our family’s budget, which works out to $2 per fish. I was going to say that I could totally see a family spending $2 on a fish, especially if it was one of those cool glow-in-the-dark fish I used to have when I was a kid, but then I remembered this was a metaphor and the family is actually the entire state budget of California but the six fish are still literally just six fish. Okay, yes, that seems a little much.
Finally, Marginal Revolution and even some among the mysterious and endangered population of non-blog-having economists are talking about how really the system of price controls and subsidies in the water market is ridiculous and if we had a free market on water all of our problems would be solved. It looks to me like that’s probably right.
Consider: When I used to live in California, even before this recent drought I was being told to take fewer showers, to install low-flush toilets that were inconvenient and didn’t really work all that well, to limit my use of the washing machine and dishwasher, et cetera. It was actually pretty inconvenient. I assume all forty million residents of California were getting the same message, and that a lot of them would have liked to be able to pay for the right to take nice long relaxing showers.
But if all the savings from water rationing amounted to 20% of our residential water use, then that equals about 0.5 MAF, which is about 10% of the water used to irrigate alfalfa. The California alfalfa industry makes a total of $860 million worth of alfalfa hay per year. So if you calculate it out, a California resident who wants to spend her fair share of money to solve the water crisis without worrying about cutting back could do it by paying the alfalfa industry $2 to not grow $2 worth of alfalfa, thus saving as much water as if she very carefully rationed her own use.
If you were to offer California residents the opportunity to not have to go through the whole gigantic water-rationing rigamarole for $2 a head, I think even the poorest people in the state would be pretty excited about that. My mother just bought and installed a new water-saving toilet – which took quite a bit of her time and money – and furthermore, the government is going to give her a $125 rebate for doing so. Cutting water on the individual level is hard and expensive. But if instead of trying to save water ourselves, we just paid the alfalfa industry not to grow alfalfa, all the citizens of California could do their share for $2. If they also wanted to have a huge lush water-guzzling lawn, their payment to the alfalfa industry would skyrocket all the way to $5 per year.
In fact, though I am not at all sure here and I’ll want a real economist to double-check this, it seems to me if we wanted to buy out all alfalfa growers by paying them their usual yearly income to just sit around and not grow any alfalfa, that would cost $860 million per year and free up 5.3 million acre-feet, ie pretty much our entire shortfall of 6 million acre-feet, thus solving the drought. Sure, 860 million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but note that right now California newspapers have headlines like Billions In Water Spending Not Enough, Officials Say. Well, maybe that’s because you’re spending it on giving people $125 rebates for water-saving toilets, instead of buying out the alfalfa industry. I realize that paying people subsidies to misuse water to grow unprofitable crops, and then offering them countersubsidies to not take your first set of subsidies, is to say the least a very creative way to spend government money – but the point is it is better than what we’re doing now.