How We Talk About the California Drought

I’m a TA for a class on environment and the media this semester, and I’ve been thinking a lot about our discourse around water issues and how it affects people’s perceptions of complex problems. Nowhere have I seen the simplification and outrage that is prevalent in our treatment of environmental issues more than with the coverage of California’s drought.

Starting with Jay Famiglietti’s sensational op-ed entitled (by the Los Angeles Times editorial board, not by Famiglietti himself) “California has just one year of water left. Will you ration now?” (the op-ed has since been retitled and is available here) the national media have focused their attention on water in the Golden State. A good portion of these media outlets originate on the East Coast and probably don’t generally pay very much attention to Western issues, much less water shortage. It is a golden rule in environmental media studies that coverage of environmental issues is almost invariably by non-specialists. Pressed with a sudden need to cover the big story, national media outlets relied on a simple reading of the situation that, understandably, ignored more than a century of history and the complicated realities of engineering, law and economics that determine where and how water is actually used, and arrived instead at a classic three-stage cycle of generalist media coverage. Without further ado…

Stage One: Thesis: Death to Almonds!

It takes one gallon of water to produce a single almond. In fact, the almond industry uses more water in California than all of Los Angeles. Almonds are a luxury item that we could easily do without. Hell, we even export a bunch of them to China. Somehow they avoided the mandatory cuts that hit homeowners like you and me. We could solve the entire water crisis- seriously, the whole thing- simply by banning the production of almonds in California.

Phrased like this, the argument seems facile, even lazy. But dress it up with fancy charts and some populist outrage and you get the (very, very successful) first wave of generalist media coverage of the California drought. There are literally dozens of articles I could choose to illustrate the thesis stage of the argument cycle, but I’ll just pick one.

Get it? Nuts!

Get it? Nuts! (Apologies to Faith Kerns)

The Mother Jones piece is actually one of the more balanced ones and Tom Philpott is a rare dedicated food and agriculture reporter, so there’s more than a knee-jerk reaction to the statistics I quoted above, which you can see readily in the chart below. Nowhere does he advocate for banning almond production… but his commenters do. This isn’t an uncommon observation as I’ve followed the California drought. A sensational headline, a fairly reasonable article, and some pre-existing notions combine to make many readers conclude that almonds- or nut crops, or, perhaps, agriculture more generally- should bear the burden of the cutbacks. After all, agriculture consumes 80% of the water that is consumed in California and produces only 2% of the state’s gross domestic product. Such a statistic is pretty damming for the industry, if you are one of those who eat California’s many other high-value products: semiconductors, aircraft, and films, or who don’t realize that there’s, you know, a good reason that agriculture uses a lot of water: living organisms, which we eat, require water to grow, unlike unliving non-organisms, which don’t. But anyway…

It's hard to read this chart and not conclude that almonds should go.

It’s hard to read this chart and not conclude that almonds should go. From Mother Jones, via Gizmodo.

Stage Two: Antithesis: Shut Up About the Almonds!

Almonds are incredibly profitable. Nowhere else in the world can you grow almonds as well as in California. Plus, they’re actually quite nutritious. Besides, if you’re looking for a culprit (and everyone knows we can’t do this without a culprit) may I recommend the steak?

Cue the inevitable backlash.

In which almonds are satirically referred to as "THE DEVIL'S NUT"

In which almonds are satirically referred to as “THE DEVIL’S NUT”

Allssa Walker’s piece begins by defending almond growers as economic drivers and producers of useful calories… but rather than turn to a holistic assessment of California’s complicated water laws, political history and geography, she identifies Prime Suspect No. 2. Fifteen percent of California’s water is used to grow alfalfa. We don’t even eat alfalfa. Even our cows don’t eat most of this alfalfa- Chinese cows are eating our alfalfa! Walker concludes, rather ridiculously, I must say, that Asian countries “have outsourced their own droughts to California,” implying that it is that fifteen percent of our demand that takes us beyond supply (as in, not my use, the other one). Of course, that’s really not how it works. Almonds, alfalfa, rice, citrus, cities… all of these sectors have been growing while the snowpack shrinks. Needless to say, this style of reporting would not be the end of it…

Why simply ridicule Mother Jones' use of a reductionist chart when you could add your own?

Why simply ridicule Mother Jones’ use of a reductionist chart when you could add your own? From UC Davis via Gizmodo.

Stage Three: Synthesis: Guys, This Stuff is Really Complicated

Come on, people. California is really big and does a lot of different things. Some of those use a lot of water by their very nature. Some of them use less. Some of them make a lot of money. Some of them make less. Some of them (like urban lawns) are there for deep-rooted (no pun intended) cultural reasons. Others (like forage crops) are there because of global economics and U.S. trade policy. We have to stick together rather than pointing fingers! (he said while pointing his finger at East Coast media)

Finally we arrive at some sort of contextual truth- the sort of truth that doesn’t escape you if you write for the Los Angeles Times and spent a lot of time researching and writing a book about the Hoover Dam:

A headline that tells you everything you need to know about media coverage of crisis...

A headline that tells you everything you need to know about media coverage of crisis…

Michael Hiltzik unwraps the California drought into its various droughts – the groundwater overdraft in the Central Valley, Nestle’s continuing bottling of spring water in the Coachella Valley, the profusion of Kentucky bluegrass throughout Southern California cities, thirsty golf courses, water releases for fish that bypass dying farm fields… the list goes on. To conflate the myriad problems of water in California into a single problem is the hallmark of a generalist reporter on deadline, as if I wrote that the Detroit auto industry’s collapse was because they made lousy cars. Did they? Probably. Certainly I could find some evidence for that. Have we planted too many almonds? Are we growing too much of China’s forage crops? Do we have too many lawns? Do we still drink bottled water unnecessarily? Yes. No doubt. But to write about one of those things and omit the others- not out of malice or ignorance, mind you, but to find an interesting story that appeals to busy readers from all walks of life- has real consequences for how the general public- the ultimate arbiter in the market and the voting booth- think about our very, very complicated problems.

I want to go on record here- I welcome coverage of Western water issues by out-of-region media and non-specialists. More viewpoints, more discussion and more options are invariably a good thing in managing public resources with diverse uses. I just hope we don’t stop writing and reading before Stage Three- or, more likely, Stage Sixteen-plus: Neo-Revisionist Synthesis: No, But Seriously, We’ve Gone Over This, It’s More Complicated Than That



3 thoughts on “How We Talk About the California Drought

  1. You are technically correct, Jessyca- the best kind of correct!- but the article you linked states that the springs and streams they are tapping would otherwise recharge the Coachella Valley aquifers, so I’m going to leave the reference as is. Thank you for the catch.

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