29 Sep 2008

California's Agricultural Water Efficiency

A reader asks:
Do you know of a statistic or set of statistics that says that, equalized I guess for climate and crop type, California agriculture uses water more efficiently than anywhere else in the world?

I could swear that I've seen something like that somewhere.

It tends to deflate the enviro crusade a little, I think, if it's true, because it shows that (assuming demand is constant) California may in fact be the best place to grow the water-intensive crops, and not vice-versa.
Note that water is only one input of many (labor, capital, seeds, etc.), so I'd expect that water-use efficiency will be low in places where water is cheap (Imperial Valley) and high where it's expensive (Israel). California ag will only improve water efficiency efficient when water is expensive, and ag water prices will rise when farmers are selling water to urban and environmental buyers.

Bottom Line: When water is scarce (and price reflects scarcity), we will be more efficient in the ways we use it.


  1. Gosh, I guess I'm not sure what you just said. Your "bottom line" appears right, taken by itself.

    Nobody's against water use efficiency. Farmers strive to use water wisely. So do city dwellers - well, maybe not in unmetered jurisdictions. I do agree there are market signals that could be improved, in ag as well as in urban areas.

    However, the question asked above, it seems to me, is asking you to get out of the "California is the universe" mindset and look across the globe. One of the "efficiency" arguments is that we shouldn't be growing alfalfa here - too much water, too little value. But if the alfalfa is going to be grown SOMEWHERE, shouldn't we think about where? And I do think that the alfalfa will be grown, unless you address the demand (consumption) side.

    So, holding demand constant, and assuming a need for alfalfa (or any other crop, take your pick), the question is - where? California? Farmers are under a lot of pressure to use water wisely and treat the environment here - might be a good place.

    Somewhere else? The third world? Might not be as good. Irrigation methods twice as rudimentary. Environmental laws much less restrictive, and even less well-enforced.

    So the question above, I think, is relevant.

  2. Hey I don't care where alfalfa is grown -- as long as there are no subsidies driving the grow decision.

  3. Duh, how do we get milk for children and other dairy products without feeding alfalfa to cows?


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