California currently sits in the middle of its worst drought ever on record, which has taken a large toll on many of the state’s farmers as it seemingly refuses to rain day after day. It may surprise you to learn then, that during this statewide crisis, billions of gallons of water are being used to grow hay that is destined for China.
Robert Glennon, a Law professor at Arizona College of Law, told BBC News that “a hundred billion gallons of water per year is being exported in the form of alfalfa from California…It’s a huge amount. It’s enough for a year’s supply for a million families – it’s a lot of water, particularly when you’re looking at the dreadful drought throughout the south-west.”
In a time when many citizens are being asked to cut back on their water usage as reserves quickly dwindle, it may seem absurd that we would use any water to produce crops for China — especially hay, a crop that our own farmers have struggled to grow and have had to purchase from other sources.
Ronnie Langrueber, a California alfalfa farmer, told the BBC that he thinks it is all part of the global economy, questioning, “Is it more efficient to use water for a golf course for the movie stars or is it more efficient for farmers to use it to grow a crop and export it and create this mass economic engine that drives the country?”
What Langrueber fails to understand is that the majority of people affected by the drought are not movie stars wanting to play golf, but everyday citizens and farmers just like him who do not want to see their livelihoods affected because all of their crops are dying due to the inaccessibility of water.
Just last month, farmers received more bad news from the State Water Project (SWP) and the Central Valley Project (CVP) — both water projects that pull from sources in California — stating that they will no longer be allocated any water thanks to the continuing drought. Sprinklers and irrigation on many farms in the south of the Imperial Valley continue to shower water on their emerald green land as they draw their water from the Colorado River. With water property rights, there is no legal and feasible way to have farmers in the Imperial Valley share their water source with farmers in the Central Valley. Despite, the billions California spent in the 20th century on water canals for this precise purpose, there is no conveyance that would make possible the transfer of water from south to north between the two valleys. That is, if the property rights issue was resolved.
Sadly, all this does not matter. The fact of the matter is that it is more cost effective to send the hay to China than anywhere in California. There are currently many more things being shipped from China to the United States than vice versa, so returning ships have lots of space that can be cheaply filled up with hay.
What is more startling, is the fact that domestic news sources are failing to report on this topic. Aside from the BBC, headquartered in the U.K., the New York based, The Nation, is the only reputable media outlet that has published an online article highlighting this issue. Yet, both the BBC and The Nation have a limited readership stateside. U.S. residents, mainly those in California affected by the drought, are widely being left in the dark.
In the end, it is really up to the companies who are growing the crops to decide on what they want to use them for. Shipping hay to China will be cheaper for exporters and produce higher profits for farmers for the foreseeable future, but hopefully some companies will choose California’s welfare over trade interests — after all, this is the state in which they built their business.