The California Water Crisis

As another absurdly frigid Winter melts into Spring in the northeastern United States, our meteorologists are not simply content to relax and enjoy the warmer weather. Instead, they are busily trying to understand why this particular season encompassed the coldest month in recorded history.

Why did this happen? Well, according to weather scientists, the polar jet stream developed a “kink” that drove the arctic air down over the eastern United States. To the south and west of the jet stream, however, the winter brought unprecedented heat and drought. That’s why California Governor Jerry Brown ordered a mandatory 25% reduction in water use for most residents and businesses within the Golden State.

If you check the “small print” of the Governor’s mandatory order, though, you’ll notice that one particular industry has been fully excused from implementing any conservation burden. Apparently, agricultural organizations need not reduce their water consumption habits at all.

This exemption is particularly meaningful because a whopping 80% of all water consumed in California is used by farms. In other words, Governor Brown is forcing a significant majority of all California consumers to adopt conservation measures, while not asking for any modifications from the farms that consume most of the state’s water.

Why won’t the Governor ask farmers to conserve any water? Last week, on national television, he defended his decision to exempt California’s farms, noting that they are “providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America … (and that) workers who are (at the) very low end of the economic scale here are out of work. There are people in agriculture areas that are really suffering.”

In other words, it appears that Governor Brown is exempting the agricultural industry from mandatory water conservation measures in order to protect it from economic distress. But such a policy may be shortchanging the ability of the industry to modify its own practices and emerge in a strengthened state.

For a relevant comparative example, let’s take a moment and consider the automobile industry. The federal government has repeatedly mandated improvements in CAFE fuel economy levels, despite periodic protests by the manufacturers that the requirements are not practical. And then, inevitably, what happens to the industry?

The auto manufacturers always manage to find innovative technologies that meet the new requirements. And by doing so, they become more competitive against their foreign rivals.

Might a similar process generate a similar outcome for California’s agricultural industry? Indeed, might mandatory agricultural water conservation measures compel farmers to find creative approaches for becoming more efficient with water?

It’s hard to understand why Governor Brown is so hesitant to give this approach a try. After all, if California based companies like Tesla and Google can invent cars that run on electricity and that don’t even require human drivers, why can’t technology firms in the Golden State develop agricultural methods that simply require a little less water?