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Lettuce, golf courses and gardens - wasting precious water

Irrigating Wheat! Using an overhead spray line. Image ©USDA
So, it’s finally dawning on California that there’s a water shortage. Better late than never, I suppose. But where does all the water go? Well, spectacularly inefficient irrigation of crops and golf courses, not to mention gardens, is one way it gets wasted. Like watering wheat - wheat! - above (click to enlarge)

I remember, years ago, the PR guy from one of Britain’s top garden watering companies telling me – in a tipsy moment after a press party – that 85% of the water that came out of his company’s sprinklers evaporated. Wasted. Gone. Vanished into thin air.

Research at the University of California (Davis) points out that in the southern deserts of the USA 36 inches of water per acre is typically used to grow a lettuce crop, that’s about one million US gallons per acre. Let’s say a field produces two crops of lettuce a year (an estimate probably on the low side), that’s two million gallons of water per acre per year. The water is applied from overhead sprinklers and let’s say that my tipsy PR guy overestimated the wastage, let’s say it’s only 50%. That’s a million gallons per acre per year – wasted. And the most recent figures (2012) show that California harvests about 284,000 acres of lettuce a year.

Across the border in Nevada, Google Earth reveals the patterns created by huge sprinklers - the booms can be up to half a mile long - in a naturally arid region (see below, click to enlarge).

And what about golf courses? According to the United States Golf Association “golf courses in hot, dry climates may require as much as 6 acre-feet of water per acre per year”. As it happens, this curious measure translates into almost two million gallons of water per acre per year for a dry country golf course. If we say a golf course is about 100 acres in total  - well, you get the message.

So, co-incidentally, it takes about the same amount of water to keep a golf course lush and green as it does to grow two crops of lettuce – and most of it is wasted!

Soakerhose watering hellebores in the shade garden. Image ©GardenPhotos.comThere are a number of conclusions to be drawn from all this. And one of them is that California’s new rule that restaurants must ask customers if they would like a glass of water before serving it is not going to solve the problem.

As gardeners, we should abandon sprinklers and install soaker hose watering instead in the shade garden, left, click to enlarge). That’s easy. As for lawns? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Lettuce growers, too, should use some form of furrow irrigation, many already do. Or soaker hose – and using soaker hose would also work wonders for the car tire recycling business (that’s what soaker hose is made from). Installation would be a major capital expense, of course, but charges for water use would be cut significantly as growers would use so much less – where they pay for it at all(!) And hey, we’d have to pay more for our lettuce. What’s wrong with that? Lettuce is cheap. And perhaps more crops would be grown in areas with a higher natural rainfall. It makes no sense to waste water growing lettuce in California then truck it to supermarkets in New York. But don’t forget: 80% of California’s water is used by farms and farms are not included in the mandatory 25% cut back.

I'm not sure that reducing 20% of water use by 25% is going to make much difference - that's 5% of the total use. A drop in the... you get the picture: sounds good, doesn't mean much.

And golf courses? That’s a tricky one. The men people who make the decisions about this probably agree it all out on the golf course - and we wouldn’t want to upset them, would we…?
Irrigating the Nevada dessert. Image © Earth


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I agree that this is a ridiculous way to use water in CA. Of course, anytime there is something to be cut back on - it's always the small consumer, never the big corporations.


The problem is that there is no market for water. Farms are granted water use rights, but the farmers are not allowed to sell that water to anyone else, so if they don't use it they lose out on the value of their land. If they were allowed to sell their water, many would do so (tree farms with a longer term investment to maintain might pay for more water, but lettuce and other annual crop growers would likely relocate to wetter states). California cities would have no water shortage if a market for water were allowed to develop. This is purely a government-instituted problem.

Graham Rice

Interesting solution, Beth, except that a free market in water might well result in the agricultural corporations with all the clout manipulating the system to their own advantage - same as in other markets.

Here's another option I've heard: tax the use of the water, which will reduce consumption, and use the revenue to make grants to the water utilities to mend the leaks in their pipes. Interesting...


Taxing it won't transfer agricultural use to city and town use, which is what needs to happen; water rights are already granted to agricultural land owners, many of whom would willingly sell them to cities for their use at market rates. The system can only be manipulated if gov't is corrupt and the markets are not transparent & rates set by demand and supply. Taxing will only hurt the poor, who already pay for water use through water rates. It's not city users who need to reduce consumption, but farms, which use the majority of the water.

Graham Rice

I think the point was to tax industrial and agricultural water use, not domestic water supplies. Interestingly, we pay about $800 a year for home water (and sewage) for our two bedroom cottage in England...


Given the populations pressures on agriculture, it would be better to stop growing lettuce altogether. Or better yet, gradually cease the pressures that have created industrial agriculture. Support localized agriculture instead. In addition to the obvious, this would also help to decrease the general ignorance among the population about agriculture and nature (generally), help them better understand how food comes to their tables.

Regarding creating markets for water, while logical, the idea strikes me as dangerous given efforts by corporations to privatize and own the things--including water--that are essential to life.

Given that just 85 people own half of the world's wealth, it seems unwise to allow water to be privatized.

Great post!

Graham Rice

Thanks, Diane. Promoting local agriculture is of course ideal and I was interested to see the recent news of a big new glasshouse lettuce operation coming to our county in north east Pennsylvania - it's said it will employ 200 people! But the value of a local operation, using plentiful local water, must surely be set against the need for so much heat in what I think is zone 5. Plentiful water, low transport costs versus the emissions resulting from all that heat use. It's not that simple, is it...


Hi Graham, yes, I absolutely agree, the situation is not simple. Given that we live in a centralized, oligarchical, and overpopulated world that is running out of resources, the situation is not at all simple. Localizing agriculture--including efforts by individuals to grown their own food--is one small step in improving the current, dangerous situation in which our natural systems are beginning to collapse. No agricultural system can feed, long-term, the current global population. Industrial agriculture only appears to be capable of doing this because the final bill has not come due. We have been drawing down, for example, aquifers that have taken thousands of years to fill. One of the greatest things about local agriculture is that it brings people closer to the natural systems that give us life.
At any rate, thank you for a great, thoughtful, and highly relevant blog!

Graham Rice

And thank you, Diane, for your thought provoking comments. I'll try to go take a look at the local lettuce operation when it gets going - and report back.

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