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California Gov. Jerry Brown's announcement of the state's first-ever mandatory water restrictions means that we'll soon be taking shorter showers, flushing less, replacing lawns—and paying more for water. For longtime California residents, this is something we have to put up with every few years—the national news coverage of parched dirt and dead orchards, weathercasters' fervent hopes for rain, and the off-base suggestions of towing glaciers from the Arctic, setting up expensive desalination plants, or building transnational pipelines.

But this drought is different. Historic. Serious. California is now the color of dried blood on the US Drought Monitor map, with virtually the entire state in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. Snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada are the lowest in recorded history. Some communities in the Central Valley have run out of drinking water. And researchers from NASA and Cornell and Columbia universities are warning of a future megadrought, a climate-change-driven event that could last decades, or even centuries, instead of several years.

And a few—albeit very few—columnists are even talking about the need for millions of Californians to eventually leave the state when it runs out of water.

In announcing the executive order directing the State Water Resources Board to curb water use by 25 percent in cities and towns across California, Brown told reporters, “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

Indeed, Californians have been moving toward xeriscaping and drought-resistant plants since the serious drought of 1989-92. And in light of the severity of the current situation, tearing out a patch of grass is a small price to pay to preserve water for more important domestic uses.

Brown's order also calls for replacing 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping; a consumer rebate program to replace old appliances; reduced water use for campuses, golf courses, and cemeteries; and bans on watering grass on street medians and using potable water for irrigation in new home developments.

Together, the restrictions would save an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months—the equivalent of what's left in Lake Oroville.

Replacing lawns and cutting down on domestic urban use is an important first step. But Brown's restrictions leave out agriculture, the state's biggest user. Brown defended that decision during TV appearances to discuss the restrictions, saying agriculture is already suffering in the wake of hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres and thousands of layoffs.

California's 80,500 ranches and farms are a nearly $48 billion industry that contributes 2 percent to the Gross Domestic Product. They produce 350 commodities, including 99 percent of the nation's artichokes and almonds, 98 percent of its broccoli, 96 percent of its tomatoes and berries, and 88 percent of its avocadoes. And they use 80 percent of the water.

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The state's farmers have seen their federal and state allotments reduced as the four-year drought continues. And they're also bracing for lower allotments this year. But some farmers still apparently have enough to consider selling water to the 19-million-customer Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is willing to pay an astronomical $700 for an acre-foot of water—double the rate it paid five years ago.

In response to the lower allotments, Central Valley farmers are turning to groundwater. As wells become more plentiful and penetrate ever deeper, the ground is sinking by as much as 1 foot per year, according to the US Geological Survey, which fears that the subsidence will damage the canals and other infrastructure that delivers water to farms.

The 2014 drought cost California $2.2 billion and 17,000 jobs, and resulted in the pumping of an additional 5.1 million acre-feet of groundwater, according to a report by researchers at the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. And as farmers continue to scale back their acreage, the economic cost is bound to grow.

With all the focus on tearing out urban lawns, one thing that has not been mentioned is the immense use of water by the livestock industry. It's estimated that raising livestock for food uses up 30 percent of water resources globally.

With all the focus on tearing out urban lawns, one thing that has not been mentioned is the immense use of water by the livestock industry. It's estimated that raising livestock for food uses up 30 percent of water resources globally.

Raising livestock is tremendously water-intensive, when you include the water it takes to grow their feed, keep them hydrated, and wash out their cages and coops and the slaughterhouse killing floor. And the problem is compounded for raising livestock in arid regions such as California, where there is little natural forage.

Beef tops the list for water use. It takes 1,847 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. That's the equivalent of six months worth of showers. Which would you rather have? A hamburger that's devoured in minutes or six months of cleanliness?

And the amount of water it takes to raise other livestock is not much lower: Sheep (1,248 gallons/pound), pork (718 gallons/pound), and chicken (518 gallons/pound) are somewhat lower, but still much higher than plant-based proteins, such as tofu (302 gallons/pound) or soybeans (257 gallons/pound).

We have been concerned about our carbon footprint for several years now. But perhaps now it's time to focus on our water footprint. (If you need help making more water-conscious food and consumer goods choices, the Water Footprint Network has a handy assessment tool.)

But perhaps it's also time to acknowledge that California is a desert and should use its farmlands for less water-intensive crops. The state's famed nuts also take an abundance of water to produce, with almonds, which require 1,929 gallons of water per pound, the worst offender.

If the governor is reluctant to impose water restrictions on agriculture, the market will eventually impose its own restrictions. The cost of water-intensive crops and products will continue to rise until consumers refuse to buy them. The only problem with that approach, however, is that by the time that happens, the state's groundwater might all be gone.


Margo McCall