Sep 11 2014
Water-The Third Rail Part XXXVI The Water Cost of Flowers
Not a day goes by that somewhere, somehow the drought is mentioned. It’s
even on Caltrans traffic signs. “SAVE WATER” is everywhere. Yet, even the
most common-sense politician in San Diego, Dianne Jacob, apparently does not
make the connection between how our water is used and the on-going drought.
Supervisor Jacob lauds San Diego’s growing agriculture industry.
When it comes to number crunching, unless it’s matching household income
with expenses (and that is often avoided) most people’s eyes glaze over.
Here in San Diego we have a “situation” with water. Statistics abound about
how much water certain vegetables, fruits and flowers require. So let’s try
a fable to bring home the disconnect between water and an expanding
agricultural community. Fables usually start with “Once upon a time…” and
this one does also.
Once upon a time there was a small village located on the sea shore at the
edge of a desert. To supply water this village (there were no wells)
enterprising folks had built a pipe line to the mountains hundreds of miles
away. It was a small pipe with just enough capacity to supply fifty homes,
for that was all there were in the village. Contentment reigned throughout
the village for many years, until one of the homeowners decided the village
needed sprucing up a bit, so flowers were planted in an empty lot.
Then disaster struck, the rains stopped coming that had allowed the flowers
to grow. Lawns around the homes turned from luxurious green to brown
stubble. Water supply from the pipe had been reduced. The reservoir in the
mountains from which the water was coming was becoming seriously depleted.
But the flower growing homeowner insisted the flowers needed the water. In
fact, the flower lot was using the same amount of water as five homes did.
A meeting of the town council was held to discuss how much water the flowers
were consuming. There were two sides to the debate as usual. One side
declared the income to the village would suffer if the flowers were not
grown and sold. The other side showed a chart that the income was miniscule
compared to the large quantity of water being used to grow the flowers. The
debate became acrimonious. Then one of the wisest and oldest council members
stood and asked, “Who is prospering from the sale of the flowers?”
All eyes turned toward the flower-grower. “How much are you paying for the
water for the flowers?” The flower-grower answered, “Well, the same as
everyone else.” A motion was made and seconded that the flower-grower would
pay five times (equal to five homes) the amount that everyone else paid. A vote was taken and
passed 49-1. Did the flower-grower stay in business?
No one suggesting (as in the fable) that agriculture pay five times the
water rate urban users pay. The point is they use water as a principal
resource in their business, unlike urban users. The statistics?
Five thousand Seven Hundred Eighty-two families in San Diego County consume
ten percent of the water coming into a population of over three million
(50,000 acre-feet vs. 500,000 acre-feet). Median farm size is four acres. At
a gross domestic product of $1.85 billion, agriculture is only one percent
of the total GDP for the San Diego area. Although flowers are not 100% of
the product, ornamental trees and shrubs are 23% of that $1.85 billion, and
indoor flowering and foliage plants account for 18%. So almost half of the
$1.85 billion agricultural dollars are not food products.
As the reservoirs continue to drain to lower and lower historical levels in
this on-going drought, when is someone going to make the connection between
needs and wants. We may want to supply flowers to the rest of the world from
this desert, but our need is supply precious life giving water to three
million San Diego residents.
About Alumni at the University of Montana