The New York Times and a natural-capital approach to water management

california map

Brent Clothier’s group bulletin includes an item of interest to NZIAHS members and readers of this blog based on an article in the New York Times. He writes: 

It has been said of Californians that they “… love water, but hate rain”.

That conundrum is biting them now. The west of the US is in the grips of a massive drought, with a bleak outlook. Not because of the lack of rain ironically. But it is due to climate change which has progressively melted the snowpack which controls the bulk of the supply of water into Californian catchments.

So how do you make sense of the natural capital value of water?

Mark Bittman, a New York Times op-ed writer, recently advocated an opinion here:

Bittman gets straight to the nub of the problem

“Almost every number used to analyze California’s drought can be debated, but this can be safely said: No level of restrictions on residential use can solve the problem. The solution lies with agriculture, which consumes more than its fair share.”

He went on to contend  that

“… more water was used to grow almonds in 2013 than was used by all homes and businesses in San Francisco and Los Angeles put together. Even worse, most of those almonds are then exported — which means, effectively, that we are exporting water. Unless you’re the person making money off this, that’s just nuts.”

And then he says

“… the big question is not, “How do we survive the drought?” — which could well be the new normal — but, “How do we allocate water sensibly?” California grows fruits and vegetables for everyone; that’s a good thing. It would be an even better thing, however, if some of that production shifted to places like Iowa, once a leading grower of produce.”

So what are the crops that need to be considered?

Bittman shows that

“… California grows alfalfa (which uses more water in total than any other crop — yes, more than almonds) that then gets shipped to China. It grows lettuce in the desert, and other crops in places that make no sense. The state has also become the biggest dairy producer in the country; at least a part of that industry would work better back east, where both water and land are available. “

Bittman steers his readers to these numbers for agriculture (sorry about the imperial units) …



“It won’t be easy to rationalize water use in the face of powerful water-dependent interests; though agriculture is a surprisingly minuscule part of the state’s gross domestic product, it’s a big political force.”


“.In most areas, groundwater for landowners is “free,” as long as you can dig a well that’s deep enough. This has led to a race to the bottom: New, super-deep wells, usually drilled at great expense, are causing existing shallower wells, often owned by people with less money, to run dry.”

And truly the water is running out …

They’re sucking on…

“Groundwater that’s built up over a millennium which is being removed too rapidly to be recharged. Those aquifers will most likely never be replenished, making this a form of environmental suicide.”

Bittman’s  answer is that…

”It would be better to have a national policy preventing profit-making from public water and to encourage agriculture where it’s more naturally supported by the climate.”

It sounds like the NYT writer is advocating a natural-capital approach to manage our collective utilisation of the ecosystem services that our landscapes provide us. Good stuff. Politically tough – but it’s really the only way forward.

* Dr Brent Clothier is Science Group Leader, Production Footprints & Biometrics Sustainable Production, at Plant & Food Research


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