Every winter, from November until April Earthbound Farms operations move from the Salinas Valley of California to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. If you are eating a salad in January odds are stacked in your favor that the organic lettuce produced by Earthbound Farms was grown with water from the Colorado River.
What is described as the lower basin of the Colorado River: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, have 186 million acres in agricultural production. Back of the envelop calculations estimate that our agriculture and ranch stakeholders use 80% of our drinking water. The remaining 20% is used for everything else. Agriculture using the lion share of our water returns about 3% to our gross domestic product. By way of comparison Apple Inc. in Cupertino is a $2 trillion enterprise and yes it needs to be noted that we can’t eat our iPhones, iPads and MacBook Pro’s, at least not yet.
Michael Kiparsky writing for the Los Angeles Times said that the relevant water rights records, estimated at more than 10 million pages of paper files, legal rights dating to the 19th century but still binding today are disbursed across 58 county courthouses in California.
Until now, as California is battered by drought, wildfire, and heatwaves there has been little interest in digging into this massive trove of tangled legal decisions. Water users have continued using while regulators have been directed by political leaders to look the other way- when they could- as long as they could. That dog won’t hunt any longer.
University of California at Berkeley School of Law has attempted to digitize a fraction of the relevant water rights documents. Evidence suggests the effort may be useful, that there is some hope the scanning and organizing of the records might be finished in a realistic time horizon and at reasonable cost.
Nothing happens in the American Southwest without water. Crossing the Sonoran Desert on foot from the Mexican border to Tucson isn’t survivable without water. Scarcity has been a constant and now with demand outstripping supply the push comes to shove moment is pressing in on the region.
Arizona monsoons last week in Queen Creek, Mesa and Apache Junction dumped almost 1 inch of much needed precipitation. Parts of Scottsdale received about half that amount. Most other Arizona stations reported little to none. Last year’s monsoon season was a no-show. Each year half of all the water that falls in Arizona comes from these summer downpours. Banking on monsoon downpours is like betting the house with a chance of winning chump change. The monsoons are predictably unpredictable as the desert southwest has grown water that falls from the sky will never keep pace with demand.
Rebecca Solnit writes in the Guardian that we have reached a climate induced “turning point.” Anxieties about wildfire, drought and heatwaves have increased across the region as one disaster is predictably followed by another. Homes burn to the ground, wine is tainted by wildfire smoke and rendered worthless, exorbitant increases for fire insurance threaten vast regions of Northern California’s property owners caught up in land located in the urban-wildfire interface. Actuaries in the business of spreading risk see no winning hands for insurers and many are no longer writing new policies in California. The knock-on effects of these unanticipated higher costs are a piece of the reckoning climate change is forcing on the region.
As the megadrought bares down upon the Colorado River’s lower basin water managers are going to be forced to order water allocations cut, landowners with subordinated water rights will be forced to take their land out of production first, if that isn’t enough all stakeholders will have their water cut.
Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Los Angeles, our urban population will feel the impact in grocery stores as higher prices. The rural communities will be hit by losses as the farms can’t produce. Then there are all the second order effects, wages lost, seed and fertilizer not sold, crop dusters idled, truck drivers with no load to deliver.
Farmers growing vegetables in the Salinas Valley have optimized their operations. Labor is a key resource. Veteran farm hands returning each year work the same land with the same equipment to produce the same crop. Streamlining operations is a must.
Reconfiguring an operation for a crop that requires less water may be a bridge too far, the transition costs too high, the access to water too uncertain to get a bank to make a loan on a future crop they may never make it to harvest.
If you are driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you will drive through the Westland’s Water District. The regions access to water is tentative, only after those groups that possess the most senior water rights, usually dating back to before 1930 may water be made available to the Westland’s water users further downstream.
This is the poster child for a piece of the western regions 184 million acres destined to be removed from production. Water allocations have been over promised and cuts will be needed to bring the system back into balance.
Even if it rains and reservoirs begin to recover the higher temperatures and drier air means our recovery will be glacial, and there is every reason to be concerned that given our increasing population that Lake Powell and Lake Mead will never see enough runoff to be refilled to capacity. Too many stakeholders continue to demand their promised deeded access to too little. Excess heat trapping carbon particles in the atmosphere is the invisible piece of our crisis, the demand for rights to use the last drop of water is the most tangible.
In this modern go-go we can do anything world, without access to a reliable supply of water that can do attitude won’t get the job done. Even if you see the glass as half full there is still another half a glass of water missing.
Advances in irrigation technology add expense to production, the water scarce west will always be disadvantaged competing with same commodity produced in a more water abundant region.
Efficiencies also include crops that use less water producing food that can feed more people. This more direct use of our land for human consumption I liken to “farm to table,” in this case we rid our food production system of the intermediary, the animal we fatten, slaughter then eat, instead it is a system repurposed, this is the model of field to stomach, that is if you can imagine reprogramming the passionate tastebud driven throng trying to adapt to being satiated and contented eating further down the food chain.
Can’t imagine that? You’re not alone. Like a heart attack on a plate, a cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake consumed over decades by a well-meaning yet sedentary citizen there will be that moment that the cheeseburger eater is flat on their back, then there is the stranger attempting to revive you as you slip away into the vast eternity of the next chapter of your life, this is beyond the body, after it no longer matters what you eat.
At our dinner table there is all kinds of trash talk about wildfire risk. We calculate wind direction, relative humidity, and chance of fire as if this is the normal course of conversation. In our neighborhood the nearby pine trees are no longer regarded as safe. Fire resistant indigenous trees are less of a danger. Our leafy neighborhoods are both possessed of beauty and high dungeon.
Growing organic lettuce in Yuma makes sense. Helping American’s gain access to an abundance of organic dark leafy greens is one of the healthiest vegetables to end up on our supper table. This mighty vegetable holds the key to heart health and a disease-free life. It also rids us of the middleman, fattening animals for slaughter is complicating our fight to fix the climate emergency. If you don’t think of yourself as part of the problem, you haven’t been living quite guilty enough. Feel more passion to change, don’t accept your mindless desires, maybe our stomach is wrong.
The Colorado River stretches 1400 miles from headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to where the last remnants that empty into Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From start to end there are a vast complex overlapping community of stakeholders. These are the diverse other spokes in our food system, from fist fighting cowboys to addle appetite driven vegans, from irrational misinformed partisan hotheads to indigenous peoples that can trace their ancestors back to 20,000 years before present.
Abandoning representative government for an autocratic, command and control world where the unchecked power’s pick and choose between the well-connected and not so well connected won’t solve the American West’s water shortages. This anti-science bandwagon isn’t a good fit in civilization threatened by megadrought. We can’t invent water, we can’t imagine our way to abundance, we must learn to make the most of the water we have. Conservation and reclamation will help, and it is part of our mix of adaptations, but we’re heading for a far more consequential crisis, the dimensions and impacts are not going to be easy to come to terms with.
If you live in LA you’re back of your mind worried about wildfire, but more likely you’re real ache in your life has to do with your commute, what time your girlfriend is going to show up, how to get tickets to the Hollywood Bowl, you promised your heart throbs you’d go see Diana Krall.
If you are raising a family in King City in the Salinas Valley it is the high rent, the price of a gallon of gas matters, getting you newborn baptized is everything.
Forty million acres will need to be removed from production, and what land remains in production will be refocused.
None of this will be painless. I didn’t want to switch to a whole food plant-based diet. I didn’t make the change until I had to, and even then, what can I say, much of this path was difficult, I complained plenty, but I put my big boy pants on and did what was required, that my changes increased the odds of my survival, and if I didn’t change and had kept going the same way that there was trouble ahead.
Rural America’s politics has shot off and gone haywire. Our white rural Christians have latched onto the toxic politics of what remains of the Republican Party. If taxes from the urban professional class are to be used to help our agricultural sector through this transition the two America’s will need to sit down and have an honest conversation.
Voting rights should be at the top of that list. Ending income inequality needs to be on that list. If we reach across the isle to help the other side, we’ll want a full-throated affirmation that the best future for our country is a two party self-representative government.
Rural America needs to come to terms with a more emancipated modern woman. We need a less oppressive approach to living with half of our citizens.
Rural gun regulations are not a good fit for urban America. Rural and urban America need to fix this problem. Blocking legislation in Washington DC needs to stop.
Adapting our agricultural sector to the realities of climate change will require changes in how and what we farm. There is no better place to fix the lethality of our diet than by changing to crops that will make us healthier and happier.
Expertise matters when sewing seeds or flying a plane. Let’s get the best ideas up to the front of the line and put all this bias and prejudice back on a barstool in a tavern where a customer can have their say but not tip the whole freaking experiment in democracy at risk.
America can do this, but first off, we need to agree to be more agreeable, that the other side has a right to exist, but it doesn’t have the right to grab hold of power and tyrannize everyone and everything that’s not the same as the people you are most familiar with.
Won’t be long now. Citizens living in the rural American West are about to go through some things and if there is any chance of survival it is being willing to cooperate with those more affluent urban citizens that are willing to step up and help. Megadroughts, climate emergencies, wildfires are the warning signs, the flashing red lights on our dashboard that our ecosystem is breaking down, that there is no more time for doing nothing, that for the sake of our survival we are all going to be asked to make some sacrifices as we adapt to this hotter and drier reality. We have to give to get.