The morality tale behind California’s verdant prosperity will most certainly change. In the old narrative, the evil city took water from powerless farmers. Swimming pools in greater Los Angeles were filled with liquid that could have kept orchards alive in the Owens Valley, to the north.
* * *But now, just about everyone in California knows that it requires a gallon of water to grow a single almond, or that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water used by humans here. Meanwhile, the cities have become leaders in conservation. It takes 106 gallons of water to produce an ounce of beef — which is more than the average San Francisco Bay Area resident uses in a day.
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It’s outlandish, urban critics note, for big farm units to be growing alfalfa — which consumes about 20 percent of the state’s irrigation water — or raising cattle, in a place with a third of the rainfall of other states. And by exporting that alfalfa and other thirsty crops overseas, the state is essentially shipping its precious water to China.Egan notes other rural vs. urban morality twists, such as the fact that San Francisco gets its water from the Hetch Hetchy dam, in Yosemite. The flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is widely believed by conservationists to be one of the bigger crimes against nature in the state's history, and many advocate restoration of the Valley.
Egan notes that California agriculture produces just 2% of the state's GDP and employs only 3% of the state's workers. In light of that, Egan predicts a power shift coming from the drought, one that puts more power in the hands of the wealthy—and the cities, of course (with whom "wealthy" is largely synonymous).
Nevertheless, Egan predicts, "[a]griculture will not give up its perch atop the power pyramid without a fight."