In 1957, author C. Northcote Parkinson wrote "Parkinson's Law," a study of bureaucracy and business. It included the lesser known Parkinson's Law of Triviality, which argued that organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues and ignore the big picture.

Today in California, water rationing has been imposed to deal with the ongoing drought, with the intent of reducing consumption by 25 percent. Gov. Jerry Brown says “People should realize we are in a new era. The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day — those days are past.” 

But when you look at the actual requirements, you have to wonder what C. Northcote would say. Californians can no longer use drinking water to wash their sidewalks. They cannot wash their cars without a shutoff nozzle on their hose. Hotels have to provide an option for not having towels laundered every day. Restaurants have to ask if you want drinking water. I’m sorry, but those are trivial.

As Leslie Ziegler notes in an article in Medium, all of the water-saving moves affect only 20 percent of California’s water consumption; 80 percent of water used in the states goes to agriculture. The state is an agricultural powerhouse, growing fruits, vegetables and nuts that feed the nation (and Canada to the north). Almonds alone consume 10 percent of all the water in the state, with every single nut sucking up a whole gallon. But Nathaniel Johnson in Grist claims that almonds should not be singled out as the poster-nut of the crisis; they are really high value.

Almond farmers aren’t the problem; they are just acting out of common sense, following market signals. It’s those signals — warped complex water laws in some cases, and no rules in others — that we need to fix.
He’s right, the whole system is nuts. A system in which irrigated farms grow fodder for California cattle, which, according to Ziegler, essentially consume 2,500 gallons of water to grow one pound of beef. Or, using what she calls hamburger math, “Turns out that the water needed to grow two and a half pounds of beef, or ten 4 oz hamburgers[2], is the same amount the average person uses to shower. For a year.”

A pound of bacon requires 800 gallons of water. A dozen eggs: 636 gallons. Simply cutting back on meat and cheese does far more to save water than anything Brown has mandated that residents do at home. (Though we'll skip Ziegler’s main suggestion: switch to eating crickets.)

glamour girl label for California vegetables

Now that's a beautiful label. (Photo: Public domain)

The real long-term solution is to look at the whole North American food production system. About 80 percent of America’s berries come from California; between a third and a half of all the nation’s fruits and vegetables come from there, grown mostly on irrigated land in the Central Valley. Thanks to cheap water and lots of sun, they have been able to dominate the market, but this has been a problem for a number of years. After an E coli outbreak in 2013, we made the realization that almost all bagged salad in America came from there, so it was easy to spread contamination across the country. Or take the California strawberry. (Please. They are terrible by the time they get up to the Northeast or Canada). They grow them very efficiently in California, but as Lori Stahlbrand of Local Foods Plus told me in an interview:

I was just in Watsonville, California, where they grow all those strawberries. If you go to a restaurant, you can’t get a glass of water because of the shortages, but they are pumping it out of the aquifer to grow those strawberries. That’s not sustainable.
Back at Medium, Ziegler concludes that “The most powerful thing any of us can do as individuals is to shift the market demand from the goods that consume the most water to those that require less. That’ll go much farther than giving up the 645,802,325,581 showers necessary to offset our missing water.”

That involves everyone of us in North America, and not just Californians. We have to wean ourselves off cheap, year-round California produce and grow it close to home, and re-learn how to eat local and with the seasons. We have been in a bubble of cheap transport and cheap water delivering cheap food, and it’s over.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.