California, Water and Rice

Image by: California Department of Water Resources

I have done a number of posts about water shortage in California. In the almost 30 years I have lived here, I have never seen the hills as brown in February as they are now, and the reservoirs as empty. With no rain in sight, we’re facing a very serious drought.

Pretty soon the “hungry water markets” of Southern California will receive their lectures about conserving water, about taking less showers and installing low flush toilets. Eventually the restaurants will no longer serve glasses of water – unless the customer asks for them.

Let’s put water in California into perspective:

Around 75% of California’s water supply comes from north of Sacramento, while 80% of the water demand is in the southern two-thirds of the state. 80 to 85% of all water in California is used by agriculture, growing 350 different crops. We irrigate 29 million acres.

We urban users consume about 10% of our water, about 8.7 million acre feet. Industry uses the other 5%.

These statistics tell me that no matter how much less we flush our toilets or wash our cars, even if we were to magically cut our consumption in half, we would not even make a dent in California’s water use.

Of the 350 crops grown in California, the one that is exported most are almonds. Second is rice.

Rice uses a prodigious amount of water to grow. The only crop that uses more water than rice in California is alfalfa. And guess what, alfalfa and rice are some of the largest crops in California.

Do we need all that rice? Interestingly, about one third of all rice produced in the U.S. is exported, mostly to Japan and Korea. Ninety percent of the world’s rice is produced in Asia. Only 1.4 percent is grown in the United States. Four fifth of all U.S. rice is grown in California, using up over 500,000 acres mostly in the Sacramento Valley.

Ninety-one percent of the world’s rice is grown in Asia. The U.S. produces just 1.4 percent of the world’s rice and four-fifths of that is produced in California where the acreage this season totals 544,000, mostly in the Sacramento Valley. Click here to learn more about rice in California.

Here is a crop that we don’t really need in the United States, of which we export a significant percentage, and it uses a disproportionate amount of our precious water. I say we should stop growing rice in California and focus on more useful and water-saving crops, some that we could consume right here, rather than those we have to ship to foreign markets.

USDA figures in 2009 show that more than 44 percent of federal crop subsidies in 2009 went to cotton and rice growers. Cotton growers received almost $198 million and rice growers received more than $73 million.

Between 1995 and 2009, an elite group of 567 farming entities, just one percent of all subsidy recipients in the state received $2 billion.

In 2009 alone, the top one percent of subsidy recipients in California, some 125 growers, took $57 million in subsidies, or $453,000 per recipient.

These numbers bring to mind some interesting realities: First, there is a top 1% in farmers too. The elite ones get the lion share of the subsidies, while the thousands of small ones have to figure out how to make ends meet. Second, those 125 growers must have powerful friends in Congress. Remember, we just passed another farm bill without any open debate and any challenge to the farm subsidies. Those growers make sure the massive teat of the federal government keeps producing subsidies.

And, I am sure, even though I can’t find the evidence, they have their ways to keep the water flowing so those rice fields can be well flooded, while we Southern Californians turn off our taps while we shave or brush or teeth.

There is big money in rice and in the subsidies that make sure we continue to produce it for those hungry markets in Japan.

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