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California's Drought and Livestock

Moses Seenarine (10.14.14)
(
Reprinted on OpEdNews, June 30, 2015)


Travelling

On an early Sunday morning in mid-September, I got on a city bus right outside of my apartment complex in Orange County, California, and went for a pleasant 40-minute trip to the local train station. On the bus, there was only one other passenger, an older Vietnamese man who lived along the way in Little Saigon. After introducing myself, I excitedly told him the purpose of my trip. "I'm headed to Oakland to get on a train to New York City for the People's Climate March on September 21. It'll the largest climate march in history."

I went on about the UN meeting for all heads of state, and activists' hope for binding emissions reduction pledges from the assembled leaders. The old man listened intently and smiled. When asked why he was on the bus, he replied softly.

"I live alone and feel lonely. Plus, I need to exercise. So everyday, I take this bus in the morning to the beach. There, I exercise for an hour and then I take it back home. I eat, take rest, and then I go again to the beach to exercise in the afternoon. Two times each day, everyday, I have been taking this bus, for many, many years now."

Entirely fascinating this man's use of public transportation, and inspirational as well. The bus was half-full by the time we got to the the train stop. The morning coolness evaporated quickly, and the temperature was already in the upper 70's degree F. Dragging three bags to the platform made me very hot, and I quickly removed a vest and changed into shorts to avoid overheating. After a short wait, the westbound train arrived and I cooled off during the quick 20-minute trip to a crowded Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

It was hotter in the city than in the suburb - 90 degrees F. This was due to urban heat island effect, but temperatures so far are California’s hottest on record. The evidence of climate change and global warming was all too real, and too much for me to ignore. Compelled to act, I was attending the climate march to network with others and help build the movement.

Going across the country from coast-to-coast via mass transit was going to be awesome, with a carbon footprint a fraction that of travel by taxi and airplane. But first, the journey would take me through Central California with a private bus company offering express service from Los Angeles to Oakland. The luxury bus was almost full when we pulled out of the sweltering Union Station at noon, and I was glad to be inside the air-conditioned vehicle. Halfway on the 8-hour trip, we arrived in Bakersfield for lunch. Two hours later, the bus stopped in San Jose, where mostly students got off, and after another hour, in San Francisco, where most of the passengers exited. An hour later, we made our final stop in Oakland. 

From Abnormally Dry to Extreme Drought in Three Years

Along the route, where ever I looked, I saw how dry and parched the earth was. That was apparent as soon as we left the artificially irrigated landscapes of Los Angeles. Statewide, it's been three years since we've had any decent rain. Towns in the north, where it typically rains a lot, are running out of water, and reservoirs are ever-dwindling. Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, is now dried up. Four rivers once fed Tulare Lake, but with rainfall sporadic at best, no water flows through there anymore. More than 80% of California is in extreme drought and the state's condition isn't expected to improve in the near future.

Thousands of Californians have lost their farming jobs, and the drought is expected to cost the state $2.2 billion because of its impact on agriculture. The farms was not nearly as busy as I saw on my previous trips, and everywhere, the people and economy seemed depressed. The price of fruit, nuts and vegetables has gone up as supplies have diminished because of the drought. 

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The problems of the drought has been exacerbated by inaction and mismanagement by the state's top officials. As early as 2011, major parts of the state was "Abnormally Dry", and by 2012, most of the state was "Abnormally Dry", or in "Moderate" and "Severe Drought", as recorded by Drought Monitor's maps. By mid-August 2013, almost the entire state was in "Severe" or "Extreme Drought", yet only in January 2014 was a drought State of Emergency declared throughout the entire state. More than half a million people live in Bakersfield, which this year has experienced worse drought than any other city in America, yet the city did not impose restrictions on water use until August.

In the coastal desert of Southern California, where I live, even native, drought-tolerant foliage appear brown and stunted. But none of this prepared me for what I was about to see in California's Central Valley - a large stretch of farmland that is the country’s fruit basket, salad bowl, and dairy case. Half of the country’s produce comes from California, and it is a major source for livestock production. However, California's agriculture and livestock productivity is water-intensive, and therein lies its weakness. I saw firsthand how much the drought was affecting agriculture in the state, and how much precious water was being wasted. 

Water Use and MisUse

Agriculture accounts for 80% of the water used in California, and for a long time environmental groups have been critical of the unsustainable, over-use of the state's limited water resources for farming in dry areas. Due to poor planning, water mismanagement, and short-sighted and inappropriate development, many of the state's agriculture fields and groves are now parched, and nearly half a million acres of crops have been left fallowed and unplanted. 

We stopped for lunch in the Central Valley, and I saw why this area was unsuitable for large-scale agriculture. Bakersfield was 100 degrees F - the heat felt stifling in the shade and the sun was like a flame on my skin. The air was stifling hot and uncomfortably dry. My body was drained of moisture quickly, and walking for five minutes in the sun was oppressive and exhausting. 

On the highway that runs through the Central Valley, on both sides of the road, there were huge farms stretching all the way into the far distance. On a previous trip I took three years ago, most all the farms were lush and filled with crops. Now half were completely dry, and empty except for the occasional tumbleweed. Vast fruit groves of mature trees lay dead, dying and abandoned. 

Citrus growers, who produce eighty per cent of the country’s citrus, have been losing acres of trees, as the amount of water available for crops has been reduced by two-thirds. Many pistachio and almond farmers saw their trees wither this year. In Fresno County, almonds are the primary crop, worth more than a billion dollars. But seventy per cent of almond farmers in the area only have access to groundwater for irrigation, which is rapidly drying up.

During the three-year drought, state governments delayed and took little action to avert problems affecting biodiversity and industry caused by water shortages. Early in 2014, the state began to restrict the flow of irrigation water to farms, partly to protect endangered species and wildlife in deltas and wetlands. However, as the drought progressed, rather than tighten them, the state soon eased water restrictions due to intense lobbying from the industry.

Satellite images show there has been a drastic loss of groundwater over the last dozen years. Underground aquifers are California's largest water source, and California uses more groundwater than any state, relying on it for 40% of its total water supply in most years and 60% in dry years. Decades of intense pumping have dropped water tables dangerously low, causing 1200 square miles of California to sink as much as a foot a year, according to one study.

Worst hit are the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River basins, where water has been pumped out to support agriculture in the Central Valley and elsewhere. Since 2011, the amount of water removed from these river basins each year added up to 4 trillion gallons, an amount far greater than California’s 38 million residents use in cities and homes annually. With wells running dry all over the Central Valley and elsewhere, only in September 2014 was the Governor compelled to signed bills that limited the amount of groundwater farmers can pump.

Drought and Livestock

In the Central Valley, we passed many livestock farms and animals reeling from the effects of the drought. Hay prices have doubled in California, and ranchers who can afford it, are sending their herds out of the state. Between January and April, a hundred thousand cattle were hauled away. But many factory farms are still filled with animals, and I realized that a lot of the crops still growing were not meant for human consumption, but to produce feed for livestock. What a waste and poor use of the state's remaining water.

Rarely discussed or acknowledged, livestock production is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is also responsible for vast amounts of fresh water use as well - Texas, California, Oklahoma, and North Carolina each used more than 125 Mgal/d for livestock, and accounted for 35 percent of total livestock withdrawals in 2005 in the US. Animal agriculture is highly water-intensive - the total amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is 1,799 gallons and one pound of pork takes 576 gallons. Given the limited resource water has become in the state, continuing livestock production is increasingly unsustainable, and downright reckless.

Downwind of each animal factory we passed, an overpowering smell penetrated the sealed air-conditioned bus, lasting minutes and miles away from the farms.The strong uric acid stench was much more powerful than on my previous trips, maybe because they were not washing out animal stalls as frequently as before. Is there a pileup of methane on these farms as well?

All of the cows and other livestock I saw were female and I was reminded that their exploitation is gendered by patriarchal development and modes of consumption. In hunter-gatherer societies, female and young animals were often spared as they were valued for their reproductive roles. In factory farms, female animals are exclusively used and abused, with a few males milked for sperm. As part of this hyper-masculine, misogynist sex-specie system, male chicks  having zero use value, are simply tossed in the trash, 

For ecofeminists, how female non-human animals are treated affects how female human animals are treated. The oppression of female non-human animals by patriarchal development is related to the devaluing of all agents of reproduction - human female animals and the earth itself. I am deeply affected by the docile creatures I see outside the window, and feel guilty for not doing more to make them free. These innocent non-human animals lived unnaturally, without their normal culture and interests like sexuality. Powerless, these non-human female animals were enslaved in separatist colonies to live shortened, meaningless lives whose only value lay in human consumption.

The gendered view of livestock and nature as freely available for male development and exploitation extends to the sense of entitlement over water and its use. In a dire situation of "Extreme" and "Exceptional Drought" throughout the state, water which is the basis for all animal and marine life, is thoughtlessly usurped for male maldevelopment, making it less available for all others. The mismanagement of the state's water resources to support unsustainable agriculture and livestock production is leading to countless loss of biodiversity. Already pushed to the brink by the prolonged drought, many ecosystems and animal habitats are being denied access to the few remaining water basins and deltas being drained and diverted to agriculture.

Conclusion

Male maldevelopment is becoming a death sentence for much of California's Central Valley's non-human animal inhabitants. It is also affecting small farmers, farm workers, poor communities, and many others throughout the state. This crisis is an opportunity to re-think and evaluate water use in the state. Restrictions on water use will help to protect and preserve biodiversity. Transitioning from water-intensive agriculture to drought-tolerant crops, and ending livestock production entirely, are both critical to building sustainable development and communities in the state.

Each day without rainfall, the situation becomes more critical, compounded by state officials' mismanagement. If and when the rains come in the Central Valley, the problems caused by water shortages will not go away for long, especially if it continues on the same unsustainable development path. California is a warning to regions being transformed to drought-prone by climate change, that water-intensive agriculture and factory farms are going to fail spectacularly and rapidly. Unless they change quickly, the people in California and elsewhere are in for a rude awakening.


Dr. Moses Seenarine is a plant-based father and activist, founder of Climate Change 911, and the author of Voices from the Subaltern (2004), Meat Climate Change (2016), and "Who's (h)eating earth?" (Forthcoming).