Individual water use shaming is pointless

California is deep in the grip of a punishing drought, one unprecedented in recent human history. The state feels withered, sere, and dry, despite the promises of an el niño this winter. While the rest of the world faces increased rain and storms as a result of climate change, California is cracking and dehydrating — in part as a result of climate change, but also, it appears, as part of a long term cycle of wet and dry seasons. The state happened to be colonised by Europeans during a particularly wet part of this cycle, creating the illusion that it would be a place of bounty, and now the pendulum is swinging back.

The drought is dominating not just state but also national news, as a dry climate in California spells trouble for the rest of the country, too. This state is one of the largest providers of produce, animal products, and other agricultural products in the nation, and without a steady supply of relatively cheap goods from California, the country could be facing shortages of some foods and skyrocketing prices for others. California isn’t just a place that makes movies and has a big red (technically international orange) bridge. It’s also key to the economy of the United States, and to the food security of the nation.

Unsurprisingly, California is now subject to a number of water restrictions, though Governor Jerry Brown implemented many of them far too late. While the state has been under drought conditions since the early 1990s, policymakers and residents have only begun to take the issue seriously within the last few years, and only within the last year have they become serious about limiting water use and implementing consequences for violating restrictions, among which are very basic things like not overwatering to the point that water spills over onto the sidewalk and street.

Such restrictions, though, are little more than feel good measures. As someone who has spent most of my life using water extremely conservatively as a result of living in a dry place with limited fresh water (Lesbos) and later a house that relied on a single 1,000 gallon tank of collected rainwater (Caspar), I’ve always been accustomed to cutting water usage. I’ve always showered and washed dishes differently than friends, regarded maintaining a garden differently than friends. I’ve always had a bucket in the shower and washed dishes in bursts and planted drought-tolerant plants and left the garden to largely fend for itself, even if it means that some plants die over the summer — if I don’t have enough water in my shower bucket to sustain them, so be it.

The real culprit when it comes to water use in California, though, is agriculture. An estimated 80 percent of the water supply in the state goes to agriculture, which is pumping out aquifers faster than they can recharge. There are numerous efficient options for growing crops in California, many of which are backed by years — sometimes centuries — of agricultural practices and research. The most obvious is changing the kinds of crops grown in the state, focusing on those that thrive in low-water conditions. Dry farming is another option, and one that actually produces more intense, flavourful produce. Better soil management is critical. Changing watering practices to take advantage of the best times of day and limit runoff is also important. There’s no reason to waste vast quantities of water on California agriculture, no matter how delicious our avocados, wines, and almonds are.

Yet, the focus in the state is apparently personal water usage habits. While restricting watering, car washing, and related activities makes sense, it’s also a reminder of other environmental policy that focuses too much on individual actions and not collective societal issues. Yes, choosing to collect shower water and use it for watering saves water, just as installing a low-flow showerhead with a toggle also saves water. However, the number of gallons saved just doesn’t stack up against those used in agriculture. Smart greywater recycling and home water use can help preserve fragile aquifers, but it doesn’t have the same impact as, for example, eliminating animal products from the home; which is more important, mulching the roses so they need less water, or not eating a steak, which requires over 1,000 gallons of water to produce?

Turning to individual water usage as the culprit is a problem, as is the zest for shaming people for how they use water around the house. While it makes sense to encourage people to cut their water footprint, it’s hypocritical to make pointed complaints about people who water their lawns and freely allow water to trickle off onto the sidewalk while chowing down on a hamburger, or eating a water-intense crop like lettuce or corn. The work accomplished by criticising individual water is dubious in a state where agriculture is the real problem.

The same energy invested in making a big production out of how individuals use water could and should be spent on targeting the agriculture industry, whether that takes the form of shaming farms that use water inefficiently, pressuring lawmakers to push through reforms on water usage in the agriculture industry, or educating consumers about how the industry uses (and wastes) water. This is a state that could radically conserve water — if it focused on reforming industrial agriculture rather than tripping all over itself to condemn the old man who can’t bring himself to allow his roses to die after years of patiently breeding them.

Image: Garden Sprinkler, Thangaraj Kumaravel, Flickr