As California endures its fourth year of grueling drought, officials are getting more serious about mandatory water cuts. Gov. Jerry Brown imposed the state's first-ever water restrictions last month, ordering cities and towns to cut water by 25 percent. But the vast majority of water in California goes not to homes and businesses but to farms, which so far have suffered minimal cuts.
Today, the state's Water Board approved a deal with farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in which some farmers will voluntarily reduce water use by 25 percent in exchange for assurances that they won't suffer reductions later in the growing season. "We're in a drought unprecedented in our times," said Board Chair Felicia Marcus. "The action we're announcing today is definitely unusual, but we are in unusual times."
Here's a primer on how farms are using water now, who holds rights to it, and what restrictions may come next.
How much water do California farms use?
Farms consume about 80 percent of the state's water supply, and use it to grow half of the fruits and veggies that are produced in the United States. Almonds and alfalfa (cattle feed) use more than 15 percent of the state's water.
What are water rights?
Water rights enable individuals, city water agencies, irrigation districts, and corporations to divert water directly from rivers or streams for free. The rights are based on a very old seniority system: "Senior" water rights holders are the first to get water and the last to suffer from cuts. There are two primary types of these senior holders: Those who started using the water before 1914 (when the water permit system was put in place), and "riparians," who own property directly adjacent to streams or rivers. Water rights often, but don't always, transfer with property sales.
Who are senior water rights holders?
Senior water rights holders are the corporations, individuals, or entities who either staked out the water before 1914, when the state started requiring permits and applications for water; those who live directly adjacent to a river or stream; or those who have bought property with senior water rights. This system made sense in the era of pioneers settling the Wild West: As the Associated Press recently put it, "Establishing an early right to California water was as simple as going ahead and diverting it. Paperwork came later. San Francisco got the Sierra Nevada water that turned its sand dunes into lush gardens by tacking a handwritten notice to a tree in 1902." Today, there are thousands of senior water rights holders; most of them are corporations, many of which are farms. The holders include utilities company Pacific Gas and Electric, the San Francisco water agency, a number of rural irrigation districts, and Star Trek actor and rancher William Shatner.
What water cuts were announced today, and what's coming next?
Today, the Water Board announced that it would accept a voluntary deal in which riparians in the 6,000-acre Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (shown in the map below) would reduce their water use by 25 percent, or fallow 25 percent of their land. In exchange, the Water Board promised them that they wouldn't suffer cuts in the coming year. There are about 1,000 water holders in the area who could be candidates for the deal, which will be enforced by a combination of a complaint system, satellite imagery, and spot checks.
In addition, the Board will announce mandatory curtailments to other senior water holders next week for the first time since the 1970s. The Board is still figuring out the location and percentage of these cuts.
So before today's cuts, farmers were just using as much water as they wanted?
Well, not exactly. Farmers with "junior" (post-1914) rights in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River basins, home of the normally fertile Central Valley, were ordered to stop using the river's water a month ago. But the regulations are enforced by the honor system and reported complaints; so far, only a fifth of junior water holders in the area have confirmed that they are complying.
The Department of Water Resources has also made substantial cuts to the state's two major water projects—a system of aqueducts, dams, and canals across the state that distributes water from water-rich Northern California to the water-poor Central Valley. Growers who use water from the Central Valley Water Project are only receiving 20 percent of their allocated water, and farmers of the State Water Project aren't receiving any at all.
All of this has led more and more farmers to rely almost exclusively on groundwater, but it's undeniable that the drought has led to less farming overall: Last year, five percent of irrigated cropland went out of production, and officials expect that number to rise this year.
What is groundwater, and how much of it are farmers using?
Groundwater is the water that trickles down through the earth's surface over the centuries, collecting in large underwater aquifers. It's a savings account of sorts—good to have when it's dry but difficult to refill—and it wasn't regulated until last year, when Gov. Brown ordered local water agencies to come up with management plans. The water agencies are still in the process of implementing those plans, and in the meantime, no one knows exactly how much groundwater is being used. We do know this: Groundwater usually makes up about 40 percent of the state's total freshwater usage, but lately, the state has been running on it. It made up 65 percent of freshwater use last year, and may make up as much as 75 percent this year. As a result of overpumping, the land is sinking—as much as a foot a year in some areas—and officials are worried that the changing landscape threatens the structural integrity of infrastructure like bridges, roads and train tracks.
Our ongoing investigation of gun violence, which costs the United States at least $229 billion a year, includes data on the the economic toll for individual states. Wyoming has a small population but the highest overall rate of gun deaths—including the nation's highest suicide rate—with costs working out to about $1,400 per resident. Louisiana has the highest gun homicide rate in the nation, with costs per capita of more than $1,300. Among the four most populous states, the costs per capita in the gun rights strongholds of Florida and Texas outpace those in more strictly regulated California and New York. Hawaii and Massachusetts, with their relatively low gun ownership rates and tight gun laws, have the lowest gun death rates, and costs per capita roughly a fifth as much as those of the states that pay the most.
It's no secret that black kids are more likely to be suspended from school than white kids—three times more likely, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights. And now a study published this week in Psychological Science may shed some light on just how much of a role racial bias on the part of educators may play.
Stanford psychology grad student Jason Okonofua and professor Jennifer Eberhardt designed a study where active K-12 teachers from across the country were presented with mocked-up disciplinary records showing a student who had misbehaved twice. Both infractions were relatively minor: one was for insubordination, the other for class disturbance. The records' substance never changed, but some bore stereotypically black names (Darnell or Deshawn) while others had stereotypically white names (Jake or Greg). Teachers answered a series of questions about how troubled they were by the infractions reflected in the documents, how severe the appropriate discipline should be, and the likelihood that the student was "a troublemaker."
The teachers' responses after learning about the first infraction were about equal, regardless of the student's perceived race. But after hearing about the second infraction, a gap in discipline emerged: On a scale of one to seven, teachers rated the appropriate severity of discipline at just over five for students perceived to be black, compared to just over four for students perceived to be white. That may not seem like a big difference, but on one-to-seven scale, a single point is a 14 percent increase—well beyond what is typically accepted as statistically significant.
A follow-up experiment of over 200 teachers took the questioning further, and found that teachers were more likely (though by smaller margins) to judge students perceived as black as engaging in a pattern of misbehavior, and were more likely to say they could "imagine themselves suspending the student at some point in the future."
Okonofua and Eberhart, Association for Psychological Science
"Most school teachers likely work hard at treating their students equally and justly," says Okonofua. "And yet even amongst these well-intentioned and hard-working people, we find cultural stereotypes about black people are bending their perceptions towards less favorable interpretations of behavior."
Many studies have looked at the subconscious racial prejudice of snap judgments—my former colleague, Chris Mooney, wrote an excellent feature on the subject last December. But according to the authors, this is the first study to look at the psychology behind the racial gap in school discipline. And, as Okonofua said, "The research shows that even if there's no race effect for an initial interaction, the stereotyping can play out over time. That's really important because in the real world, there are sustained relationships."
And the research may have implications for other kinds of sustained relationships between two levels of authority: say a boss and an employee, a prison guard and a prisoner, or a judge and a repeat offender.
Almonds: crunchy, delicious, and…the center of a nefarious plot to suck California dry? They certainly have used up a lot of ink lately—partly inspired by our reportingover the past year. California's drought-stricken Central Valley churns out 80 percent of the globe's almonds, and since each nut takes a gallon of water to produce, they account for close to 10 percent of the state's annual agricultural water use—or more than what the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year.
As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson put it, almonds have become a scapegoat of sorts—"the poster-nut for human wastefulness in California's drought." Or, as Alissa Walker put it in Gizmodo, "You know, ALMONDS, THE DEVIL'S NUT." It's not surprising that the almond backlash has inspired a backlash of its own. California agriculture is vast and complex, and its water woes can't hang entirely on any one commodity, not even one as charismatic as the devil's nut almond.
And as manyhave pointed out, almonds have a lot going for them—they're nutritious, they taste good, and they're hugely profitable for California. In 2014, almonds brought in a whopping $11 billion to the state's economy. Plus, other foods—namely, animal products—use a whole lot more water per ounce than almonds.
So almonds must be worth all the water they require, right? Not so fast. Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the following five facts:
1. Most of our almonds end up overseas. Almonds are the second-thirstiest crop in California—behind alfalfa, a superfood of sorts for cows that sucks up 15 percent of the state's irrigation water. Gizmodo's Walker—along with many others—wants to shift the focus from almonds to the ubiquitous feed crop, wondering, "Why are we using more and more of our water to grow hay?" Especially since alfalfa is a relatively low-value crop—about a quarter of the per acre value of almonds—and about a fifth of it is exported.
It should be noted, though, that we export far more almonds than alfalfa: About two-thirds of California's almond and pistachio crops are sent overseas—a de facto export of California's overtapped water resources.
2. While alfalfa fields are shrinking, almond fields are expanding—in a big way. The drought is already pushing California farmers out of high-water, low-value crops like alfalfa and cotton, and into almonds and two other pricey nuts, pistachios and walnuts. This year, California acreage devoted to alfalfa is expected to shrink 11 percent, and cotton acres look set to dwindle to their lowest level since the 1920s.
Meanwhile, the market is pushing almonds and other nuts in the opposite direction. At a recent confab in California's nut-rich, water-challenged San Joaquin County, Stewart Resnick, chief of Paramount Farms, by far the state's largest nut grower, explained why in a speech, as documented by an account in the trade journal Western Farm Press. Almonds, he said, deliver farmers an average net return of $1,431 per acre. Pistachios, another fast-expanding nut hotly promoted by the Paramount farming empire, net even more: $3,519 per acre.
Given that Paramount reportedly manages 50,000 acres of combined almonds and pistachios, it's safe to say there's big profits in growing those nuts. And the company, which also buys and processes nuts from other farmers and sells them under the Wonderful brand, plans to expand by 50 percent in the next five years. Currently the company farms 30,000 acres on its own and buys pistachios from farms occupying another 100,000 acres. By 2020, the company's "goal is 150,000 partner acres, 33,000 Paramount acres," which would be a 40 percent jump in just five years. And that's on top of the 118 percent expansion in pistachio acres over the past decade, according to figures Resnick delivered at the conference.
3. Unlike other crops, almonds always require a lot of water—even during drought. Annual crops like cotton, alfalfa, and veggies are flexible—farmers can fallow them in dry years. That's not so for nuts, which need to be watered every year, drought or no, or the trees die, wiping out farmers' investments.
Already, strains are showing. Back in 2013, a team led by US Geological Survey hydrologist Michelle Sneed discovered that a 1,200-square-mile swath of the southern Central Valley—a landmass more than twice the size of Los Angeles—had been sinking by as much as 11 inches per year, because the water table had fallen from excessive pumping. In an interview last year, Sneed told me the ongoing exodus from annual crops and pasture to nuts likely played a big role.
4. Some nut growers are advocating against water regulation—during the worst drought in California's history. "I've been smiling all the way to the bank," one pistachio grower told the audience at the Paramount event, according to the Western Farm Press account. As for water, that's apparently a political problem, not an ecological one, for Paramount. "Pistachios are valued at $40,000 an acre," Bill Phillimore, executive vice president of Paramount Farming, reportedly told the crowd. "How much are you spending in the political arena to preserve that asset?" Apparently, he meant: protect it from pesky regulators questioning your water use. He "urged growers to contribute three-quarters of a cent on every pound of pistachios sold to a water advocacy effort," Western Farm Press reported.
5. Mostly, it's not small-scale farmers that are getting rich off the almond boom. With their surging overseas sales, almonds and pistachios have drawn in massive financial players hungry for a piece of the action. As we reported last year, Hancock Agricultural Investment Group, an investment owned by the Canadian insurance and financial services giant Manulife Financial, owns at least 24,000 acres of almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, making it California's second-largest nut grower. TIAA-CREF, a large retirement and investment fund that owns 37,000 acres of California farmland, and boasts that it's one of the globe's top five almond producers.
Then there's Terrapin Fabbri Management, a private equity firm that "manages more than $100 million of farm assets on behalf of institutional investors and high net worth clients" and says it's "focused on capitalizing on the increasing global demand for California's agricultural output." In a piece earlier this year, The Economist pointed out that Terrapin had "bought a dairy company and some vineyards and tomato fields in California, and converted all to grow almonds, whose price has soared as the Chinese have gone nuts for them." The magazine added that "such conversions require up-front capital"—e.g., to drop wells—"and the ability to survive without returns for years." Those aren't privileges many small-scale farmers enjoy.
Below is a more detailed explanation of our data investigation, done in collaboration with economist Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. Read our full special report here.
This is an estimate of the money that police departments spend to respond to and investigate gun-related crimes. It includes police salaries, benefits, and equipment, as well as overhead costs to the police department. Miller based this calculation on the amount of time police spent on initial response and follow-up (based on this sample survey) and the amount of money police departments spend on average per officer (including fringe benefits, equipment, supervision, etc.) using data from the 2006 Census of Governments.
This is the cost of the labor and equipment involved in transporting victims of gun violence to the hospital. Miller calculated the likelihood that each type of victim (fatal or injured) would reach the hospital via emergency transport using data from a national sample of emergency room visits. The cost of transport was based on a GAO survey from 2010, which was then updated to 2012 dollars. The median cost of emergency transport for an individual injury or fatality was $452.
This is the cost of treating victims of gun violence in the hospital and post-discharge. It includes the hospital service and insurance claims processing fees paid by Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance, and the victims themselves. Hospital costs are based on a database of 40 to 50 million healthcare claims from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, insurance costs come from data collected by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and post-discharge costs are based on medical expense data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Council on Compensation Insurance.
This refers to the cost of counseling for victims of gun violence and their families. It includes the services paid by Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance, and the victims themselves. The number of people seeking mental health services per gun violence incident (death or injury) and the cost for these services are based on Ted Miller and Mark Cohen's 1998 survey of 168 mental health counselors—including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and pastoral counselors—which found that for every murder victim, 1.5 to 2.4 people sought mental health treatment.
Legal services and adjudication
This is the cost of legal and adjudication services for perpetrators of homicide and aggravated assault, including salary of the judges and public defenders, and other overhead costs of operating a courthouse. These costs are based on a 2010 study by Kathryn McCollister et al, which examined Bureau of Justice Statistics and FBI data to calculate local, state, and federal government expenditures on legal services for homicides and aggravated assaults. Miller's estimate assumes that legal and adjudication costs do not apply to unintentional deaths or injuries, legal interventions, or suicides.
This is the estimated amount of money needed to incarcerate perpetrators (convicted in 2012) of homicides or aggravated assaults over the course of their sentences. These estimates are based on a 2010 study by Kathryn McCollister et al, which examined Bureau of Justice Statistics and FBI data to calculate local, state, and federal government expenditures on incarceration of perpetrators of firearm homicides and assaults. Here again Miller assumes that incarceration costs do not apply to unintentional deaths or injuries, legal interventions, or suicides.
Work costs for victims and perpetrators
This refers to the potential wages and household productivity that were lost due to a death or injury. Miller estimated lost wages of victims and imprisoned perpetrators using expected earnings data from the Current Population Survey (US Census), data on the duration of temporary disabilities from the Annual Survey on Workplace Injuries (Bureau of Labor Statistics), and workers compensation data on the probability of permanent disabilities by the type of injury. Lost household productivity is estimated using a 2009 study based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey. In both estimates, Miller assumes that victims and perpetrators make the same amount of money and are as productive as the typical American in their gender and age group.
Costs to the employer
This refers to the costs other than benefits that an employer incurs when a worker leaves employment permanently or temporarily because of injury. It captures costs of workplace disruption, rehiring and retraining, overtime to meet production schedules, and investigation and reporting of on-the-job incidents. This number is based on estimates of employer costs by injury severity used by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Losses in quality of life
This is an estimate of the financial value of the pain, suffering, and fear that accompany a death or injury. Miller concludes that a life is worth about $6.2 million, which is a violence-specific average based on the amounts awarded by juries in wrongful injury and death cases. It includes lost wages and household production.