Daily 49er

California is running out of water, but the agriculture industry still uses more

The massive exportation of California’s alfalfa overseas has contributed to both the drought and bank accounts.

Michael Mendoza, Contributing Writer

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When it comes to California’s water resources, the state is dirt poor; but some of the state’s farmers are getting rich.

The demand for alfalfa, a type of hay used to feed cows for dairy products, has greatly increased in booming dairy industries in areas like China, South Korea and Japan.

In a 2008-2012 report by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service, the value of alfalfa and other forage goods has increased by 93 percent, nearly doubling its value.

The quick rise in demand has created a high financial incentive for farmers to send these products overseas since they stand to make millions of dollars. In 2012, U.S. forage exports brought in a record $1.25 billion according to the USDA’s FAS report. But that big payday comes at the expense of losing precious groundwater, while the state attempts to regulate the mere 20 percent of water use in urban areas.

With the agriculture industry hogging up the water, citizens in urban communities, especially those of low income, will have to work with the bare minimum in fear of receiving a fine from the state. According to the California Water Foundation, groundwater normally meets 40 percent of the state’s water demands. In California’s current drought, groundwater will account for almost 65 percent of the water demand.

In California’s drought emergency, the agriculture industry’s green light to tap into the state’s groundwater must be regulated according to the state’s water needs. In addition to using groundwater, the growing exportation of water-hungry crops to overseas markets is contributing to the drought.

What makes alfalfa a hot commodity is that its demand continues to rise in a hay-depleted Middle East and a growing Asian dairy industry, a lucrative opportunity for corporations to cash in on the billions of dollars to be made.

Experts at UC Davis’ Land, Air and Water Department found that on a 3-year average, alfalfa and other forages combined account for the most water used out of any crop grown in California at over 2.5 trillion gallons of water per year.

Growing and selling these crops is understandable from a farmer’s perspective. Like any hard-working citizen, they have to make money to provide for themselves. What creates controversy is when California’s agriculture industry continues to essentially export our precious water for money before they deal with a situation our government has deemed an emergency.

The lack of attentiveness by the government concerning California’s exportation of water is similar to how corporations get away with outsourcing jobs overseas, leading to a rise in the U.S. unemployment level.

In any case, alfalfa is the cream of the crop for corporations in terms of future financial growth.

Dan Putnam, an alfalfa and forage expert at UC Davis, stated in a recent report that alfalfa is one the most water-efficient crops in terms of high yields, high quality and its ability to be fully harvested.

However, the groundwater used to grow this crop is essentially California’s last resource of water and sacrificing it to export most of the yield overseas for profit is a slap in Californian faces. Of course the state has to generate money, but using water with no sense of sustainability is a poor means to an end during the drought.

Equally important is the fact that alfalfa is linked to California’s dairy industry, the state’s highest valued commodity, which generated $7.6 billion in 2013. The alfalfa is used to feed cattle and in return it generates milk that is used for other dairy products. I believe if we cut back at least a small portion of alfalfa’s production for a dominating dairy industry we could efficiently cut back on our water usage.

This is all about big money, but it is not worth forcing city-dwelling communities to sacrifice their ability to use water, to deal with the fear of a state fine or to pay higher rates on their water bill when they don’t use nearly as much as big agriculture.

Since the U.S. is one of the world’s major agriculture exporters, it has an obligation to provide these resources to other countries, but not at the expense of using up all of California’s water.


Michael Mendoza is a junior journalism major.

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