Over-Consumption–a key to California’s Water Crisis

This Holiday Season Let’s Redefine Over-Consumption

By Rev. Brooks Berndt

            A common lament around this time of the year is the rampant consumerism of a culture that bombards us with messages to buy more and more. As the complaint often goes, holidays like Christmas and Chanukah lose their original meaning as we get lost in a marketplace of inflated wants and needs. All of this is certainly true, and I would add my voice to the chorus of holiday disgruntlement. At the same time, might there be a bigger picture that often gets missed in how we define and delineate the problem of over-consumption?

My own thinking on this matter was recently challenged by Jennifer Kehl who directs the Center for Water Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The two of us had been paired to co-lead a workshop on water equity. I began by giving my usual spiel on the book of Ezekiel’s understanding of water as a sacred gift from God and how it contrasts with the contemporary commodification of water as a product to be sold for a profit. Kehl then took over the presentation and blew my mind away. She discussed the findings of her research on the drought in California, and what I then realized is that over-consumption is not simply a problem confined to individual consumers. Rather, the true culprits of over-consumption are often large business operations that plunder the goods of our common home to their gain and our detriment. Moreover, government policies not only open the door for this plunder to take place, they subsidize and support it.

The largely human-caused water crisis in California may ultimately be a metaphor for the over-consumptive habits of our society as a whole. The danger is that if these habits continue to go unchecked we could all end up in a barren wasteland. The hope, however, is that by addressing these dangers our faith communities can simultaneously transform themselves and transform the world. So that others might have the awakening that I had, what follows is an interview I recently conducted with Kehl.


How dire is the situation in California?


The drought in California is one of the worst water crises in American history. NASA recently proclaimed California is on its deathbed. On top of drinking water shortages, the drought has cost the state of California billions of dollars in agricultural losses and thousands of lost jobs. It has catalyzed conflict between agricultural and urban areas, while exacerbating conflicts in both hydro energy and industrial sectors. It has sparked numerous wildfires and made it difficult to find enough water to fight them. Finally, it has caused extensive ecological damage, the magnitude of which has not yet been fully determined. Governor Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought and the economic impacts on the agricultural sector. As an indication of the seriousness of the drought from the national perspective, the U.S. paid over a billion dollars a year in 2014 and 2015 in relief aid to California. On a more local level, the drought is forcing people to abandon their homes and their family farms. People are moving out of small towns across the state as they migrate to other areas. This is especially the case in small towns that compete with large-scale agricultural operations for scarce water supplies.


What are the causes of the drought in California?


There are two general causes of the drought in California: the primary cause is the over-consumption of water, while the complicating secondary cause is lack of precipitation. With regard to the over-consumption of water, the inefficient use of water is particularly problematic in the agricultural sector. Eighty percent of California’s water used for human consumption goes to agriculture. The water inefficiencies in large-scale agriculture come from policies that financially support the wrong ends. They subsidize water consumption as well as the energy required to pump water from long distances and great depths. Such policies have caused the rapid and extreme depletion of surface water and groundwater resources across the entire state. Moreover, inefficient irrigation practices such as flood-irrigation and outdated delivery systems are wasting tremendous amounts of water.


To exacerbate the problems of over-consumption, California has experienced environmental shortages in rainfall and snowfall for over five years. The problem will continue to get worse with climate change. California and the multi-state water systems upon which it depends can no longer expect to get as much precipitation as in the past.  In addition, the increased temperatures and increased evaporation from climate change, in combination with increased population, will make severe drought and extreme water stress ongoing realities for California.  Current water consumption practices are not sustainable. They are affecting the capacity to generate wealth through producing agriculture, and they are jeopardizing the ecological systems and water resources on which they depend. With dwindling precipitation, the problem worsens each year.


What water equity issues are surfacing as a result of the drought?


The drought is exposing equity issues between the rich and the poor as well as the large and the small.  The poor pay more for water than the rich, meaning a higher percentage of their income goes to pay for access to clean, safe water. Economically disadvantaged households have been documented as paying 10 percent of their income on water, while the percentage for wealthy households is usually far less than one percent.


Another source of inequity is the conflict over scarce water resources between large-scale agricultural producers, on the one hand, and small farmers and small towns, on the other.  The large-scale agricultural producers are dominating the consumption of water resources in most rural areas, and their substantial economic means are more politically powerful than those of rural residents or small farms. This situation leads to the exodus of those seeking better lives in cities. Yet, urban areas are also in competition for water with large-scale agricultural operations and will likely be the next areas to suffer from the drought and over-consumption.


In terms of government policy, what path forward offers the most hope? 


There are promising ways forward—some more feasible than others. The most important path forward is to reduce the over-consumption of water.  Government policies can provide incentives to improve efficiency and decrease consumption. They can also alter the subsidies that promote waste or perpetuate inefficient irrigation schemes. Correcting inefficiencies in irrigation for large-scale agriculture is perhaps the most promising because of its scale of water use. Agricultural producers could use much less water without decreasing production by growing water-efficient crops as opposed to the water-intensive crops, which are now widely grown in California. Moreover, weather-based information could be used to determine when would be the best and most necessary times to irrigate. Additionally, agricultural producers could replace wasteful flood irrigation practices with drip systems and other alternatives to reduce the use of irrigation water by as much as twenty percent in many areas. Finally, water recycling and water capture programs need to be advanced to reduce the overall water-stress on the ecosystem.


California has clearly exceeded its environmental carrying capacity. Water efficiency and water equity need to be improved in order to save California from declining economic prosperity and irreparable environmental damage. It can be done, but it will take a new commitment to water efficiency, decreased over-consumption, and a new water ethic.



Rev. Brooks Berndt is National Minister of Environmental Justice — at UCC headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio



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