Calif. Governor Accused of Catering to 'Big Agriculture' during Historic Drought

Created: 09 April, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
2 min read
California’s historic drought has been years in the making. However it was only after Governor

Jerry Brown’s recent executive order mandating water restrictions that many Californians began to take notice. Calls accusing the governor of exempting "Big Agriculture," a heavy-hitter in California politics, became louder and louder.

However, the true story is more complex.

A recent article in the New Yorker examines how the state divides its water supply and how both cities and farmers will be required to make significant reductions.

In the wake of the recent executive order issued by Governor Brown, many residents have been quick to point the finger at a familiar foe.

Big Agriculture has traditionally been painted as the drain to which a lot of the water and campaign cash in California flows. Opponents point to Agriculture's consumption of 80 percent of the water supply as evidence of their abuse of the state's resources, but that figure does not show the whole picture.

The 80 percent figure is only representative of water that is allocated for human use; it is not 80 percent of all of California’s water supply. What is rarely discussed is the fact that about half of California’s water supply is designated for environmental uses, things like preservation of wetlands and scenic rivers that are also used to maintain the quality of water that is used for agricultural farming.

Another nuance that is often overlooked is how farmers get their water as opposed to suburbs and cities. While residents in cities receive their water from above-ground sources like lakes and reservoirs, farmers have to purchase the rights to access water through a complex seniority system that uses groundwater sources.

During the past few years, many younger farmers have seen their water shut off while water in cities has continued to flow, leaving significant portions of California’s farm lands dried out.

What is less understood in the governor's executive order is why cities are now being mandated to reduce water use. While California farms are already suffering substantial losses in crops from having little to no water at all, California cities have only been asked to cut back up to this point.

The current focus on municipal users also presents an opportunity to go after “low-hanging fruit.” Most water use in cities and suburban areas goes to cosmetic uses -- think large land plots with large lawns and gardens, especially in affluent areas. Using water for these purposes is not considered as vital as food production.

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Did the Agriculture Lobby have something to do with Governor Brown’s recent policy? Maybe. But while there is plenty of blame to assign in California’s storied history of water wars, political kickbacks are not solely responsible for the governor's recent water decisions.

Public policy is complex, and is pieced together by a variety of self-serving interests, but that does not mean that it cannot also serve a social good that is somewhat equitable.

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