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Waters of the United States

Photo by Rick Bonetti

Photo of Sacramento River in Anderson, CA by Rick Bonetti

In an email message from Congressman Doug LaMalfa we note “for the first time in California history, Governor Brown issued an executive order on April 1st requiring mandatory conservation for all California residents, directing several state agencies to take immediate action to conserve the state’s remaining urban water supplies. On May 5th, in accordance with the Governor’s order, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency regulation requiring an immediate 25 percent reduction in overall urban water use statewide.”

“The conservation standards for certain communities range between 4 percent and 36 percent, with 55 gallons as the target daily water use per person. Local agencies are authorized to fine property owners up to $500 a day if they fail to implement the water use prohibitions and restrictions, and water agencies that violate cease and desist orders are subject to a civil liability of up to $10,000 a day.”

But the Governor’s April 1st order did not require farmers, who use 80% of the water in California, to also cut usage by 25% and there has been public outcry. So on May 22, 2015 farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (who represent only about 5% of California farmers) agreed to voluntarily reduce their usage by 25% in order to gain State assurance that they would not seek further reductions for the growing season. Will other California farm areas follow?

Mining California Water

The New York Times has an interesting graphic* that notes that “the average American consumer consumes about 300 gallons of water each week by eating food that was produced there.” The graphic* shows the biggest and least water offenders, for example, it takes 15.1 gallons of water to produce 2 ounces of rice – much of which is sold to markets outside the United States. In effect this is mining California water!

California an Importer of Virtual Water

But shipping about half of the goods produced in California out-of-state is only part of the picture. According to the Pacific Institute, “California’s total water footprint is an estimated 64 million acre-feet of water. That’s more than double the amount of water that flows down both of the state’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, in an average year.”

“An estimated 38 million acre-feet of water is used to produce goods and services within California. Half of that water is used for goods that are then exported and consumed outside the state. The remainder – about 19 million acre-feet of water – is used to produce goods that are consumed in California. An additional 44 million acre-feet of water is required to produce the goods and services that are imported into California and consumed here, making California a net importer of virtual water.”


The Pacific Institute executive summary report “suggest that California’s economic and social well-being is intimately connected with water resources beyond our borders and is vulnerable to water-supply constraints in those regions. Additionally, Californians can exacerbate local environmental or social concerns outside of its borders through the consumption of goods produced in those regions.”

Clean Water Act

Meanwhile, LaMalfa, who happens to be a rice farmer, recently voted in favor of HR 1732, a measure “that rolls back the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. La Malfa, criticized the “negative impacts the rule would have on farms, small businesses, and local governments.”

On the other hand, the Obama administration strongly opposed HR1732, which they say is “grounded in science, is essential to ensure clean water for future generations, and is responsive to calls for rule making from Congress, industry, and community stakeholders as well as decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

If the bill passes the Senate as well as the House, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill, stating that “the bill is not an act of good government; rather, it would hinder the ongoing rule making process and the agencies’ ability to respond to the public as well as two Supreme Court rulings.”

Click here for a description of the impact of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act on Agriculture.


Most of the politics of water has to do with corporate agricultural concerns with little discussion or incentives for sustainability – to produce and consume locally.

Tom Philpott recently argued in a New York Times debate, “it’s time to “de-Californify” the nation’s supply of fruits and vegetable supply, to make it more diversified, resilient, and ready for a changing climate.”

If you are concerned about California water policy and locally-supported, sustainable agriculture in Shasta County, check out the Organic Consumer Association website and the Growing Local Shasta website; support your local CSA; and join Growing Local Coalition on Facebook.

National Food Policy Scorecard

Is it any surprise that Rep. Doug LaMalfa scored 6 out of 100 points in Food Policy Action’s National Food Policy Scorecard. The scored food policy issues include domestic and international hunger, food safety, food access, farm subsidies, animal welfare, food and farm labor, nutrition, food additives, food transparency, local and regional food production, organic farming and the effects of food production on the environment.

Complex Solutions

As you can see from the above introductory summary, managing waters of the United States, and particularly the waters in California, is a complex issue that is much more than a question of historic legal water rights. There is much to consider here, particularly in Shasta County where we live: exports of agricultural products (mining water); international trade (imports of virtual water); environmental pollution of our nation’s waterways; climate change and the natural availability of water in the US; corporate agriculture power and influence; sustainability of local economies; and US food policies and their impact world-wide – just to name a few.

There are certainly more questions raised in this article than solutions provided, but that is the nature of our current water situation. It is much more than watering your lawn less or even converting your landscaping to native plant species.


*Note: The amount of water consumed to produce fruits, vegetables and nuts was calculated by the Pacific Institute. Their estimates are drawn from local climate data and plant physiology data reported by the California Department of Water Resources and crop yields reported by the U.S.D.A. Estimates for milk, beef, turkey and eggs are from the Water Footprint Network.