Here are the top 10 water users among California's crops, compiled using the most recent California Department of Water Resources data I could get my hands on. I averaged data from one year of below-average precipitation, 2009, and one-year of above-average precipitation, 2010.
One thing that stands out is how low many iconic and important California crops are on the list. Strawberries, for example, are part of that 10th-place "lettuce, broccoli" category -- the DWR calls it "other truck" -- which also includes other berries, artichokes, asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, celery, peas, spinach, flowers and nursery products. Tomatoes come in 12th place, onions and garlic 14th, melons, squash and cucumbers 16th.
Meanwhile, stuff that cows eat ranks pretty high on the list. There's alfalfa and pasture, of course. But also destined for livestock forage, according to this presentation by University of California-Davis irrigation specialist Blaine Hanson, is most of the corn, some of the flax and hops category (officially it's "other field crops," and includes sorghum, millet and sunflowers), plus a lot of the grains (which rank 11th in water use). In California, the livestock are overwhelmingly bovine, so put it all together and growing things to feed cattle use more than 10 million acre-feet of water in California in an average year. All the people in California used 8.6 million acre-feet a year in the two years in question. So that's interesting.
Now, the cattle themselves don't consume much water -- direct water use by livestock farmers in California seems to be quite modest. Also, I've already written a whole column about how comparing agricultural water use with urban water use can be misleading. People eat things that take lots of water to grow. People also eat cattle, and drink their milk. Still, it does seem important to understand that raising cattle takes up more of California's water than any other activity.
Then again, selling cattle and their milk is a big-money business in California:
Note that selling hay (aka alfalfa) is a big-money business too. Alfalfa exports to China from California and other Western states are booming, which strikes a lot of people as perverse.Seeding rice fields from airplanes does sound totally cool. However, Fox highlights one of the dark truths of agriculture and diet that I'd rather not discuss: raising and eating meat (especially beef) is extremely inefficient and damaging to the environment.I'd like to think that my cow herd, and my beef-centric diet are entirely harmless, but that just isn't true.
Another phenomenon that strikes a lot of people as perverse is growing rice in California, much of it for export to Japan. As seen in the above charts, rice ranks No. 4 in agricultural water use in Calfornia, but rice doesn't even crack the top 10 in terms of revenue (it's No. 14, with $790 million in sales in 2013). Producing this rice requires leaving fields covered in 5 inches of water for the entire growing season. It also requires dropping seeds onto those fields from airplanes traveling at 100 miles per hour, which sounds totally cool.
Another important point Fox makes is that many, if not most agricultural decisions are warped by subsidies which prevent the market from dramatically impacting farmer decisions. Farmers in California can raise dairy cows, almonds, pistachios, walnuts and alfalfa (for export) because they don't have to pay what the market would bear for water. Farmers in the Midwest raise corn and soybeans even though the market is flooded with supply. They have the RFS providing artificial demand for those crops, and payment programs subsidizing raising corn and soybeans if they are unprofitable (which they are almost certainly going to be this year). Farmers don't have to pay anything toward the negative impacts on water use, water quality, global warming or energy use. As Fox makes clear, almonds are a very inviting, and somewhat overblown target as California suffers water shortage. However, we have to remember that population growth in the entire Sunbelt ignores a lot of the same externalities, and so do our lifestyles throughout the country and the developed world. But, seriously, growing and exporting alfalfa in the Central Valley? That is definitely stupid. But think about it: how much beef and other food products do we waste every day? It has to be a hell of a lot. We probably ought to work on eliminating the waste first, then advance from there.