Here at Salton Sea Sense we have tried to show that despite all the problems facing the Sea, there is hope. Hope that the Sea can thrive for generations to come, providing habitat for wildlife, continued environmental stability, and potentially increased economic opportunities. But, between the growing California population, the demands of agriculture, the historic drought and the needs of the Sea our water resources are being stretched to the breaking point. In order to meet these demands Californian’s have worked hard to find places to cut water use. This idea has spurred many ideas and catchy slogans, such as don’t wash your car and “go dirty for the drought” or let your lawn go “California Golden.” But by far the largest use of water in California is not our lawns or even our almonds; it is our meat and dairy production. Therefore, the best solution to our water scarcity problem is not found in our backyards, but at the end of our forks.
Meat and dairy production in California consumes 47% of our total water use, where as household water use only accounts for 4% and yes that includes those lawns[i]. The main perpetrator of this water use is one of the feed crops used for cattle: alfalfa, which also happens to be the primary crop grown in the Imperial Valley. Alfalfa uses over 5000 acre feet/year of water, nearly twice as much as the next crop, rice (table 2).* The last United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report from the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management emphasized the need for all of humanity to lean towards a more vegetarian and vegan diet in order to ensure that the planet can maintain the growing human population. According to the UNEP, agriculture production accounts for a staggering 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of total land use and 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and most crops are produced not for human consumption but for the production of animal products[ii]. Thus the UNEP has declared food consumption to be one of the most important drivers of environmental pressure, habitat change, climate change, toxic emission and water use[iii].
These global statistics are playing out on our local stage. When it comes to the United States’ western water wars, meat and dairy are winning, while the citizens and the Salton Sea are losing. But we can do something to change it: by making the decision to limit meat and dairy in our diets, even just one day a week, we can turn the tide. If all of California adopted just a “meatless Monday” each week, we could save an average of 116,592,339,360 (116 billion) gallons of water per year. If we cut out meat entirely, we could save 6,079,457,695,200 (6 trillion) gallons of water per year, and these numbers still include dairy in the diet. Just imagine the savings if everyone decided to be a “weekday vegetarian”:
What if all that water currently going to alfalfa fields, then being soaked up by the grass, or evaporating into the atmosphere, or possibly just running off into the sea (after collecting salts, fertilizers and pesticides), was instead sent directly into the sea? This would provide clean, fresh water in great abundance to the Salton Sea and to our urban populations. Each of our decisions makes an impact on the world around us; it is up to us to decide if that impact will be beneficial or damaging.
Written by Stacia Dudley
[i] Baker, VL. “California Water Wars Being Won by Meat & Dairy; Use 47% of All Water.” California Water Wars Being Won by Meat & Dairy; Use 47% of All Water. April 12, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2015.
[ii] Hertwich, Edgar, Ester Van Der Voet, and Arnold Tukker. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials. Nairobi, Kenya:
[iii] Hoekstra, Arjen. “The Hidden Water Resource Use behind Meat and Dairy.” Waterfootprint.org. April 1, 2012. Accessed September 2, 2015.