California farmers invest water to feed people


The worst thing about California’s drought is the suffering it has put on ordinary people. In many places, drinking wells have dried up. The crisis is so severe that the state has restricted water use.

The second worst thing about the drought is how farmers are bearing most of the blame. We hear one figure over and over: Agriculture consumes 80 percent of California’s water.

It makes farmers like me appear as gluttons—and it suggests that if we were to reduce our reliance on water just a little bit, then our state’s predicament would vanish like a puddle on a hot day.

Except that it’s false. Farmers don’t use 80 percent of California’s water, even though this figure has saturated the media’s coverage of the drought. It’s the fabrication of environmentalists who want to disguise the fact that they use even more water than farmers.

The difference, of course, is that farmers grow food for people. The environmentalists want to protect their pet causes, such as a tiny fish called the delta smelt.

California collects water through a large infrastructure of reservoirs. When they’re full, they can hold about 42 million acre-feet of water. That’s enough to submerge Iowa in nearly knee-deep water.

Each year, however, the state diverts half of its water supply for environmental purposes, such as replenishing the habitat of the delta smelt. Much of this water flushes into the ocean.

Farmers use about 80 percent of what’s left—in other words, 40 percent of the total. When journalists try to describe agriculture’s water usage, this is the figure they should adopt.

That’s a lot of water—not as much as what the environmentalists demand for their purposes (which the media fails to question), but certainly enough to demand an accounting.

So let me explain how the drought has affected my farm and the steps we’ve taken to conserve our most precious resource.

This year, I’m letting 35 percent of my land lie fallow. That is, I’m not farming it at all. I’d much rather put it to productive use—I’d like to see employees working and crops growing—but I need to save my water for other fields.

Where I do use water, I try to achieve maximum efficiency. Rather than spraying water on fields, like a sprinkler on a suburban lawn, I send it through an underground-irrigation system. It trickles to precise locations beneath the soil. Rather than evaporating in the summer heat, it satisfies the needs of our plants and nothing else.

We try not to waste a single drop.

I have a huge economic incentive to conserve. When I started farming in the 1970s, an acre-foot of water cost about $8.

A couple of weeks ago, I paid $2,500 per acre-foot.

So it frustrates me to read articles on how farmers stand in the way of conservation. Earlier this year, a reporter for the Washington Post claimed that if California “required farms to increase water efficiency by about 5 percent,” then homeowners wouldn’t need to cut their water use at all.

I wish this writer had toured my farm, starting with those fallow fields.

The other problem with pointing fingers at farmers may be so obvious that we’re actually forgetting it: The allegation assumes that farmers guzzle water out of pure selfishness. But this is silly. We grow crops to feed people. We don’t consume water as much as invest it. Our return on investment is the food supply that benefits everyone, including reporters who wolf down takeout lunches at their desks inside the D.C. Beltway.

Nobody eats delta smelt, by the way.

The best long-term solution to California’s drought is to build more reservoirs, dams, and desalination plants. We haven’t done enough of this in the recent past and we aren’t doing enough of it today.

You know who opposes this common-sense idea? The environmentalists. Their agenda is to trick you with misinformation about farmers—so that you won’t know who really wastes our water.

Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley.  He volunteers as a board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (

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A version of this column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Ted Sheely

Ted Sheely

Ted raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm. Chairman of Horizon Growers (pistachios). Long-standing interest and investment in water availability and quality. Received Innovative Water Conservation Award.

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