What we Waste When we Waste Food: Water Part 2

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Last week we wrote about the dizzyingly massive amounts of water wasted throughout the agricultural process - as well as the amount of water that is squandered when we waste perfectly edible food that has gone through the agricultural process and ended up on our plates. We broke this piece into two parts so that we could address both the difficulty of being a small-to-medium sized farm dealing with water policies that make create challenges for them in carrying out their livelihood. But we also wanted to discuss the importance of restoring and maintaining the sources of this water that provide for agriculture. We spoke with Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, the Executive Director of Restore the Delta, who argues that large agriculture companies and the farms that they own generally have the singular goal of driving an enormous profit, which encourages them to deplete crucial water resources with no regard to the long-term consequences for us all.   

As we shared last week, with the current water policies in place globally, agriculture utilizes 70% of the world’s fresh water; reshaping legislation to serve the interests of farmers as well as of environmentalists will be no small feat. The World Water Council states that “ecosystem functioning and biodiversity in deltas are under very high pressure worldwide. Main causes are a high population density and concentration of agricultural, industrial, harbor and mining activities”. An excellent example of this problem is the Bay Delta in California, a water source that serves the sweeping agricultural areas in the state as well as the ever-growing population of the San Francisco Bay area. The state has a piece of legislation called the Bay Delta Plan that is scheduled to be assessed and updated every 20 years - the most recent of these updates took place in 2018. California’s State Water Resources Control Board agreed to reinstate a minimum of 40% flow in rivers within the Bay Delta system at all times. Prior to this negotiation, the minimum flow was 30% of the volume. Most of these rivers flow from the Sierra Nevadas, and both the city of San Francisco and the Central Valley feel that they have a crucial need for this water. Groups such as Restore the Delta, the Sierra Club and the NRDC felt that reinstating only 40% of flow was inadequate - they wanted (and still want) 60%. 

The Tuolumne River Trust, a decades-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring the health of the Tuolumne River, claims that the river and everywhere it flows, through the Central Valley to the Bay Delta, used to be one of the most productive bodies of water in the world, that it “was a truly amazing ecosystem” now very much “on the brink of collapse”. This collapse is because humans take four of every five gallons of water that the river carries – this is both from farming and from cities and counties taking water for municipal water systems, some of which is also stored for future use (San Francisco generally has enough water stored for an eight and a half year drought). Barbara Barrigan-Parilla shared with us her thoughts on the 40% compromise. She argues that many large-scale farmers are planting almond groves over acres and acres of land that had previously been for grazing. Barrigan-Parilla fears that if this continues, the state of California is going to overuse its groundwater, leading to the high possibility that the aquifer will separate from the groundwater - an outcome that will be essentially impossible to reverse. 

The fight over the restoration of this one delta is emblematic of the tense and complex issues facing water resources and their use. It is difficult to assess such a problem and conclude that this is a fight that can pit farmers against environmentalists – we need to remember that both of these groups provide something crucial – one everything we eat, the other the preservation and ability to continue to provide for agriculture, people and diverse ecosystems. Barrigan-Parilla’s argument is that these scores of almond groves are not crucial - that in fact many of these growers are finding loopholes around Chinese trade tariffs and selling all of their almonds to China through South Korea. She wants large-scale farms like these to take a long-term view of what maintaining water sources means for our future - both of agriculture and of survival. The Tuolumne River provides drinking water for more than 2.5 million people across the Bay Area and the Central Valley, while also providing water to irrigate more than 200,000 acres of farmland, not all of which hold almond groves. We asked Barrigan-Parilla how she thinks environmentalists and farmers can get on the same page - she contends that we do need larger action around getting a hold on sustainable agriculture in California, and insists that this can’t happen until we create legislation that fixes what is currently the poor management of an extremely limited and crucial resource. 

Again, as a consumer who has always had access to clean water, this can be incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around - it is yet another lesson that we need to treat all of our resources with careful respect. Barrigan-Parilla told us that if we are going to stop extinction and have a healthy salmon fishery in California, we need to have 60% unimpaired flow running from the tributaries through the Central Valley. As of now, the state has not even begun to enforce the 40% unimpaired flow that was agreed upon during the 2018 update of the Bay Delta plan. Water is for more than just us, it feeds and nourishes so many other species, from animals to plants, that allow for vibrant and crucial ecosystems to thrive - a thriving that needs to be restored and supported if agriculture is to continue to be able to produce our food and if all of us are to continue living on a planet whose biodiverse ecosystems are teeming with life they way they should be.