Food For Thought: What If The Drought Causes California’s Food Supply To Collapse?


Reaching way back to 2015 the US state of California has experienced for very dry winters. On top of that, the snowpack is lowering, especially when compared to historical levels, alongside summer drought which is also historically worse than average.

Regular water consumption cuts had been imposed over the years, and people are starting to wake up to the amount of water that is being used and wasted in a state with a huge population and not a lot of natural water storage, or high enough annual rainfall levels to sustain its population.

So what’s to be done, and what if the drought causes California’s food supply to collapse? Where are we then, and what can be done to prevent it happening at all?

Why The Drought In California In 2015 Brought Water Footprints To The Forefront Of Peoples Thinking

The director of food and water watching California suggested some years ago that we need to set some hard limits around water in California, especially in agriculture and other key sectors.

The problem with setting water limits is that they limit what can be produced. You can’t limit the amount of water used in agriculture, or any other industry, and expect the same amount to be produced, even if you think and act smart.

But it’s about more than that. It’s about personal consumption, and it’s about being realistic about water storage projects in the state as well. It is enough being done, enough money being invested, to collect and store the water that does fall from the sky efficiently enough to offset the problem of a potentially warming climate and lower overall rainfall.

The Biggest Water Consumer In California Is Agriculture

By far the biggest consumer of water in California is unsurprisingly agriculture. Several studies have put the level of water usage at 80% of total water use in the state each year. That’s absolutely colossal, however it’s not completely accurate.

Around 50% of water resources are in streams, rivers, wetlands, and other naturally occurring sources. That also includes reservoirs. Urban consumers use about 10% of the available water, and irrigation for agriculture uses the rest. So it’s actually in practical terms usually around 40% each year, which is still colossal. However, California’s population is bursting at the seams.

You can break it down even further into fruit and nut cultivation taking up 25%, and other agricultural types taking up 75%.

In fact, there’s been quite a campaign against the almond. A single almond consumes around a gallon of water while it grows. So to cultivate millions and millions of almonds in California takes literally millions and millions of gallons of water.

Then you can look at alfalfa. Cattle consume it, and also it sold to China in large quantities to feed the growing dairy herds there as well, as well as smaller proportions also being sold to Japan and the United Arab Emirates for similar purposes.

However, on the plus side, the Californian agricultural industry is waking up to the problem. They are looking at agricultural practices, diversity, and starting to work with others to minimize the water they use, make things more efficient, and maximize yields.

What About California’s Oil And Gas Industry?

California’s oil and gas industry is another factor in the depletion of the natural water supply.

Hydraulic fracking is estimated to use around hundred million gallons of water per year, up from 70 million gallons in 2013. As a whole, the state is estimated to use more than 80 billion gallons of water in the gas and oil industry.

Most of the hydraulic fracking occurs in Kern County. Although the water consumption from fracking is huge there, the industry has made changes by reclaiming water from the drilling, which is then sold on to farmers after it’s been cleansed to put onto crops.

Before you panic, many studies have shown that the levels of contamination are low in this water and crops grown using it have no higher concentrations of anything dangerous than those that don’t use fracking water. However, that hasn’t stopped environmental groups from stating that more testing is needed. However, it’s only a really localized problem in Kern County, and not statewide.

But it’s not just about domestic Californian energy usage either, it’s about companies creating oil and gas for export as well. So this is not just a domestic use problem.

There’s also the pollution issue from oil and gas in California, which is why regulation is being tightened all the time. This pollution requires water to help clean things up as well. But just like other industries in California, the oil and gas industry is changing and is far more aware of cleanliness and water consumption than ever before. Obviously, more needs to be done, but it’s a long way from the dark days of 2015.

Any Other Culprits In California Using Excessive Water?

One of the other culprits at the Vanity products in California. Look at the number of golf courses that are lush and green. In summer, that takes millions of gallons of water to maintain.

Then you can look at fountains, urban water features, lush green lawns, and other completely unnecessary usage for visual and leisure purposes only.

There was also scandal around Nestlé. They are the largest water bottler in the USA. It’s been found that they are draining off a considerable amount of natural water resources to sell bottled water. There is no regulation on it, and they aren’t showing any particular responsibility about how much they take.

The Race To Achieve Water Sustainability In California

So what’s being done about the problem of drought in California? Also, can anything be done to stop the specter of drought causing California’s water supply to collapse?

Now, to offset some of the claims, it’s highly unlikely that California’s food supply would instantly collapse. For a start, the state can import food from other parts of America, and from abroad if needed. Also, a significant percentage of its food is already imported, so the food supply is never going to completely collapse.

However, another prolonged drought that significantly impacts on the ability to grow crops and raise animals would put a strain on the domestic food supply. With a growing population, and with less water available, this could mean that the food chain struggles.

So it’s not just about water sustainability, it’s also about the state starting to take more responsibility for food consumption. People need to wake up to the fact that food is not an inexhaustible resource, and it’s getting more expensive in terms of water to actually produce it domestically.

In terms of seeking sustainability, agriculture has gone a long way to addressing the problems with the amount of water it consumes to produce the yields it does.

One thing that sustainable farmers are doing is to increase the amount of carbon put into the soil. This helps to enrich it and the nutrients in it help to produce better yields even when water is less readily available.

Since 2015, the prolonged drought has increased the rate at which sustainable farming has had to be implemented even amongst the larger producers.

Scientists have expressed concern at the lack of resilience in California’s agricultural system. They say it’s a pressing issue that needs addressing immediately. It stated that farmers need to look at crops that require less water, change farming practices, enrich the soil naturally rather than with industrial fertilizer, try and harvest more water locally for use, and think more long term.

But it’s also about investors. They want crop yields now, and they want them high. That means that farmers still tend to concentrate on crop types that produce these high-end immediate returns. But diversity of crop types is key, and deteriorating surface water levels and quality means that organic rotation of crops and livestock, diversification, and planning for the long term to manage investors’ expectations are crucial going forward.

The 2014 sustainable groundwater act passed in California has gone some way to offsetting some of the problems with water sustainability. However, that’s only about dealing with major consumers, and doesn’t address those smaller consumers which also consume a large part of the water budget, both from surface water, and extraction from the water table itself.

What We Can Do As Individuals To Save Water

So to finish here, will drought because California’s food supply to collapse? The short answer is no. But it’s slightly more nuanced than a flat “no”, in that in the longer term it could lead to a gradual collapse as the population increases. That’s with the caveat that water also continues to decline in availability as it has been.

If things remain as they are, with a warming climate, less water available, the growing population, alongside the use of water for consumer products and export, then everything that is being done is still not going to be enough.

Which means California is going to have to drill down deeper into water usage to reverse the trend.

That means individuals need to look at their water consumption as well. With all the talk about golf courses and other extravagant uses, but it’s far more than that. Having shorter showers, not leaving the tap on your brushing your teeth, using bathwater on the garden, using water tanks like they do in the Mediterranean to capture the water that falls from the sky for non-consumption domestic use, all of these things can help reverse the trend and stop any specter of drought causing dwindling food supplies to appear.

Food For Thought: What If The Drought Causes California’s Food Supply To Collapse?
Scroll to top