A basic understanding of water use in California is important for all elected officials, but will be especially critical for next Governor of California as he will be confronted with some serious challenges related to the state’s water supply.
The amount and nature of water usage in California is often misrepresented. For example, it is often reported that farming accounts for 80 percent of the water use in the Golden State. That statistic, however, ignores the largest use of water, which is for environmental purposes. A more accurate accounting, according to the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Water Policy Center, shows average water usage is roughly 50 percent environmental, 40 percent agricultural, and 10 percent urban. PPIC points out that the percentage of water used by each of these sectors varies dramatically across regions and between wet and dry years.
Agricultural Water Use
Roughly nine million acres of farmland in California are irrigated. California grows more than 400 different commodities to feed and clothe the state’s and nation’s growing population. According to PPIC, total agricultural water usage is declining at the same time as agricultural water use efficiency is increasing. This “more crop per drop” phenomenon has resulted in a 60 percent increase in farm production from 1980-2017, even though farm water use has declined by about 15 percent during that same time period.
Urban Water Use
The San Francisco Bay area and South Coast regions account for the majority of urban water usage in California. Urban water use is split almost equally between indoor (home) and outdoor (landscape) water use, although this also varies widely by region. Total urban water usage has also been declining, despite significant growth in California’s population. Per capita water use has declined from 232 gallons per day in 1995 to 178 gallons per day in 2010, as a result of urban water conservation efforts. Per capita water use declined to just 130 gallons per day during the most recent drought, due largely to statewide outdoor water conservation requirements.
Environmental Water Use
Environmental water use falls into four broad categories:
- Rivers protected as “wild and scenic”
- Water required for habitat and ecosystem protection
- Water for wetlands and wildlife preserves
- Water needed to maintain water quality
Environmental water usage has increased over the past 30 years, as more water has been set aside for state and federal fishery and ecosystem protection efforts. Environmental water use would increase further if proposed “unimpaired flow” requirements are placed on the San Joaquin and Sacramento River systems. Environmental water use decreases substantially during droughts, as less water is naturally available in rivers and streams.
It is crucial for the next governor to understand the delicate balancing act needed to satisfy urban, agricultural and environmental needs in California. Our current water system is broken and is not serving any of these needs well. Our next governor must use vision and leadership to implement long-term actions that will better provide for all uses, while also acting with urgency and courage in the near term to avoid increasingly harmful economic implications of further reductions in water supplies for human use.