Imperial County agriculture uses an average of 5.6 acre-feet of water per acre per year. One acre-foot of water can supply the domestic needs (for dishwashing, laundry, showers, toilets, etc.) of two families of four for one year. Those eight people indirectly consume an average of 8 acre-feet of water per year through the food they eat.
Americans consume about 8 times more water in the food we eat than we do for standard household uses, such as brushing our teeth, washing our dishes and clothes, and showering. On average, it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow the food you consume in ONE DAY. (Click here for a breakdown on this figure.)
Below are some answers to questions that people often ask about water use in agriculture. If you are interested in learning more about farm water use, the Farm Water Coalition's web site has extensive research and educational materials on their web site, including the in-depth 40-page Water Fact Book, which is available at no charge, as well as resources for teachers.
Is farm water subsidized?
Farm water in Imperial Valley is not subsidized. Farmers pay the full cost of delivering the water to their fields.
In fact, according to the Imperial Irrigation District’s 2008 Cost of Service study, the cost of delivering water to farmers is about 86% of the total Water Department’s costs, and income from farm water sales is about 87% of the total Water Department water sales revenue.
What about the All American Canal? Wasn’t that subsidized?
When the Imperial Valley was initially settled, landowners and farmers worked together with private companies to build the first canal to divert water from the Colorado River to the Valley. That first stream of water arrived in 1901, and fed 12,000 acres of crops and about 1500 people by early 1902.
Before long, it was determined that it would be better to build a canal that would remain entirely within the United States during its journey from the Colorado River to the irrigated lands of the Imperial Valley.
Funding was needed to build this canal, so an agreement was reached in which the United States Bureau of Reclamation would build this new all-American canal, and the total cost of the project would be repaid to the government over the course of 50 years.
Those costs were fully repaid by Imperial Valley water users by 1994.
The canal is now owned by the Bureau of Reclamation but operated and maintained by IID. It delivers water for agricultural, domestic and industrial use throughout Imperial County. Currently close to a half-million acres of farmland and more than 150,000 residents receive water from the canal.
If farm water isn’t subsidized, why is it so much cheaper than my water?
The same reason that lumber is cheaper than a wooden table. They’re both wood, but the table has been through a lot more manufacturing processes along its journey to the store.
The water that comes out of your tap is purified, drinkable water that is pressurized to flow at an acceptable rate when you turn that knob over your sink. It has been treated to exacting governmental drinking water standards, pressurized and pumped through sterile underground piping systems to your home plumbing system. The cost of each of those processes and systems adds up quickly.
The water that Imperial Valley farmers receive is raw, non-potable Colorado River water that has not been treated in any way. It flows by gravity through open channels from the river to the farmer’s gate, at which point the farmer takes over and pays any further costs to pump or treat the water as needed.
Why is farm water in Imperial Valley cheaper than farm water in other parts of the state?
Water costs are typically set based on the cost of the treatment and delivery of the water to the customer, whether that customer is a farmer in Imperial Valley or a homeowner in San Francisco.
For Imperial Valley’s farmers, the cost of their water mainly covers the construction and maintenance of the gravity-fed channels that carry the untreated water from the Colorado River to the farmer’s gate, plus the administrative costs for scheduling, delivering and billing for the water.
In some areas the cost for raw farmwater is lower than in Imperial Valley. However, in many other areas, the water is transported over long distances, and in some cases pumped over mountainous areas, to arrive at the end user’s home or field. The cost of transporting the water is included in the water’s final cost, and thus the cost of water in these areas is greater than the cost of similar water in Imperial Valley.
Is agriculture really that important to a modern economy?
One in six jobs in California is dependent upon the agriculture industry. Whether it’s trucking, distributing, accounting services, equipment sales/service, etc., many Californians rely, directly or indirectly, on agriculture for their income. California is by far the leading agriculture state in the nation, with 13% of the nation’s total ag production. The industry brings $32 billion into the state, and provides jobs for 1.1 million people.
California’s unique and varied geography and climate allow for a wide range of crops to be grown domestically (avocados, almonds, pistachios, artichokes and raisins, to name a few, are grown almost exclusively in California), thereby allowing us inexpensive and safe access to these crops. California-grown products are fresher and are transported shorter distances to your grocery store. They also support local industry, keeping jobs and money within our state.
Does agriculture use more water than cities?
Irrigated farmland in Imperial Valley uses an average of just under 6 acre-feet of water per acre. Cities in our area directly use about 2/3 of an acre-foot of water per acre for domestic use, and metropolitan areas in California use an average ranging from 1-1/2 to 6 acre-feet of water per acre for domestic use, depending upon population density. Home lawns use around 6 acre-feet of water per acre.
Of course, everyone eats food, and therefore we all use water indirectly in the food we eat. The average person uses more than 800 gallons per day in the food we eat. If you add your food consumption to your direct water use, cities require as much as 30 acre-feet of water per acre to supply their domestic use and food.