The Bestseller That Warned Us About California’s Water Problem

When most of us think of California’s irrigated acres, we visualize lush fields growing tomatoes, artichokes, strawberries, and grapes. But in California, the biggest user of underground water, more irrigation water is used for feed crops and pasture than for all these specialty crops combined. In fact, 42 percent of California’s irrigation goes to produce livestock. Not only are water tables dropping, but in some parts of California the earth itself is sinking as groundwater is drawn out. According to a 1980 government survey, 5,000 square miles of the rich San Joaquin Valley have already sunk, in some areas as much as 29 feet.

The fact that water is free encourages this mammoth waste. Whoever has the $450 an acre needed to level the land and install pumping equipment can take groundwater for nothing. The replacement cost—the cost of an equal amount of water when present wells have run dry—is not taken into consideration. This no-price, no-plan policy leads to the rapid depletion of our resources, bringing the day closer when alternatives must be found—but at the same time postponing any search for alternatives.

—From 1991’s twentieth anniversary edition of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, the bestselling book first published in 1971. She argues hunger is “human made,” and highlights the environmental effects of livestock production, noting it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of steak.

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