Electronic musician Moby sat down with Rolling Stone this week to discuss California’s four-year-long drought and the steps the state could take to mitigate its effects and finally end it.
The musician and activist said California’s water problem could be “easily addressed.”
“Now that I live out in California, I realize water on the West Coast is a really limited, finite resource,” Moby began the discussion. “It’s stating the obvious, but that means it needs to be allocated responsibly. So I was, in kind of a cursory way, looking at where California water is allocated and I read an article saying that 20 percent of California’s water goes to residences, and 80 percent goes to agriculture.”
“On the surface of things, that doesn’t seem like it’s too egregious. But then you realize that agriculture in California is important, but it only contributes 2 percent of California’s gross domestic product. And then you dig even deeper and you realize that most of that water goes to just a few types of agriculture that use water incredibly irresponsibly and that contribute less than 1 percent of California’s GDP: alfalfa, beef, almonds, cotton and then some others as well.”
Unfortunately, Moby is wrong on several counts here. Agriculture does not use 80% of the water in California. That statistic fails to take into account the 50% (yes, half) of all water in California that gets diverted for environmental purposes, both to regulate the salinity of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and to protect fish species like baby salmon and the 3-inch delta smelt. When environmental usage is taken into account, farmers use about 40% of the state’s water.
Moby claims California’s water goes to “just a few types of agriculture… that contribute less than 1 percent of California’s GDP.” California grows more than 400 crops, and while it is somewhat true that agriculture represents a smaller portion of the state’s overall GDP, the state produces roughly half of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
According to Slate, California also produces 99 percent of the country’s artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, and 69 percent of carrots, among many other things.
The way water is allocated in California is so complicated and so byzantine. A lot of legislators don’t want to deal with it simply because it’s complicated. There’s a benefit from taking someone like me who can look at things in a more reductionist, simplistic way without being inhibited by the complexity of the situation. Because at it’s core, it’s really simple. And it’s not an academic discussion; we’re talking about a finite resource that’s going away.
The California water allocation system is so weird and complicated and outdated that I don’t even know half the nuances of it. But the first thing would be ending subsidies to water. If farmers, especially the big agribusiness companies, had to actually pay fair market value for their water, they would stop growing alfalfa, beef and almonds. It’s just that simple. Because it wouldn’t make sense financially. The only reason it makes sense to grow alfalfa in California is because the water is subsidized.
Setting aside that Moby first called the issue “really simple” at it’s core, and then later said it’s “so weird and complicated and outdated that I don’t even know half the nuances of it,” ending subsidies to water would do nothing to solve the drought. According to UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences, Moby’s solution is a myth. As the study notes, “most of today’s farmers already paid for water subsidies through higher land prices.”
Additionally, farmers are already getting financially squeezed by being forced to pay for water they are not receiving. The California Department of Water Resources only allocated 20% of water to the State Water Project earlier this year. But farmers still have to pay into the costs of maintaining the system. If farmers received no water, as they did earlier this year when the Central Valley Project allocated 0%, they would still have to pay full price.
Moby is right that water is allocated in a frustratingly complex way in California. But the complexity stems from the division between “senior” and “junior” water rights holders, not between urban and agricultural water use.
But he goes on:
Jerry Brown has said that farmers have suffered enough. But it’s such a misleading generalization: There’s clearly a big difference between the family farm that has 100 acres, as opposed to huge agribusinesses that have millions of acres.
More than 90% of farms in California are family farms or partnerships. So while “huge agribusiness” farms certainly have millions of acres of land, they’re not the ones getting squeezed like the smaller businesses.
Across the state, family farmers are pleading for relief from the drought from the government. At a packed hearing in Sacramento in February, farmers and federal environmental agencies came together in a rare moment of unity to petition California’s water regulators to increase pumping to the Central Valley. Significant storms had just dumped more water into the rivers, and federal environmental agencies had given their blessing. But, of course, the water regulators denied the request on environmental grounds.
Unlike environmentalists, farmers are doing their part to help conserve water during the drought. In fact, just last week, farmers with senior water rights, who have literally no obligation to sacrifice rights they have held for over 100 years, offered to cut 25 percent of water use, or leave a quarter of their fields unplanted, voluntarily.
In contrast, environmental interests have given up nothing to battle the drought. All they have done is delay important water storage construction projects by filing frivolous lawsuits.
But perhaps the worst part is that California residents literally do not have a voice; the State Water Resources Control Board, which is in charge of almost all crucial decisions relating to water, is an unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy appointed directly by Gov. Jerry Brown. Many of the Board members came into the job straight from environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Toward the end of the conversation, Moby said:
“I feel like, ideally, an activist is someone who just keeps doing what they’re doing, and if your activism is falling on deaf ears it’s either the nature of the activism or the people you’re talking to…
In terms of an activist perspective, I try to pick either the things I’m most passionate about, like animal welfare, or the things that do seem the most egregious and most easily addressed, like California’s water policy.
On this point, Moby is wrong again. Sometimes, activism fails because the activists do not fully understand the nature of the problem they are attempting to address.