California Drought – Water Footprint
California is experiencing one of its worst droughts on record. Just two and a half years ago, Folsom Lake, a major reservoir outside Sacramento, was at 83 percent capacity. Today it’s down to 36 percent. In January, there was no measurable rain in downtown Los Angeles. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.
With California producing nearly half of the fruit and vegetables grown in the United States, attention has naturally focused on the water required to grow popular foods such as walnuts, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, almonds and grapes.
Vegetables use about 11,300 gallons per ton of blue water; starchy roots, about 4,200 gallons per ton; and fruit, about 38,800 gallons per ton. By comparison, pork consumes 121,000 gallons of blue water per ton of meat produced; beef, about 145,000 gallons per ton; and butter, some 122,800 gallons per ton. There’s a reason other than the drought that Folsom Lake has dropped as precipitously as it has. Don’t look at kale as the culprit.
Unfortunately, it’s a plant that’s not generally cultivated for humans: alfalfa. Grown on over a million acres in California, alfalfa sucks up more water than any other crop in the state. And it has one primary destination: cattle. Increasingly popular grass-fed beef operations typically rely on alfalfa as a supplement to pasture grass. Alfalfa hay is also an integral feed source for factory-farmed cows, especially those involved in dairy production.
If Californians were eating all the beef they produced, one might write off alfalfa’s water footprint as the cost of nurturing local food systems. But that’s not what’s happening. Californians are sending their alfalfa, and thus their water, to Asia. The reason is simple. It’s more profitable to ship alfalfa hay from California to China than from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley. Alfalfa growers are now exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year from this drought-ridden region to the other side of the world in the form of alfalfa. All as more Asians are embracing the American-style, meat-hungry diet.