California is suffering from its worst drought in 1,200 years, but that hasn’t prevented some of the state’s most powerful corporate agricultural interests from flourishing. In a report released Wednesday, Food & Water Watch found that agricultural corporations have used an outdated water rights system to their advantage and expanded their most water-intensive operations, even as some rural communities have run out of water completely.
In California, water rights are complex and often based on seniority. The report urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to overhaul the system before it’s too late. California is becoming hotter and drier, and while a recent string of atmospheric rivers has bolstered the state’s water supply, residents are still bracing for a third year of drought; over 1 million Californians already lack access to clean water, and that number is expected to increase.
“Developing water policy that speaks to the realities of climate change requires political courage and the courage to oppose the wishes of major political funders,” the report states, “but if Governor Newsom truly wants to be a climate leader and to address California’s long-term water issues, the current crisis provides him an opportunity for action.”
The report identifies several massive allocations of water that it argues “put corporations over people.” Alfalfa growers, in particular, are called out, as the crop requires nearly 1 trillion gallons of water a year. Alfalfa is grown in some of California’s hottest and driest regions, including Imperial County, where a small group of agricultural interests owns some of the most senior water rights to the Colorado River. The county’s farmers have repeatedly resisted proposed cuts to their water usage, and on Tuesday, California refused to sign onto a multi-state effort to voluntarily cut their Colorado River water deliveries.
Food & Water Watch notes that California allows corporations to buy land with senior water rights, and huge global companies have taken advantage. The alfalfa grower Fondomonte Farms, for instance, operates in Blythe, California, but is a subsidiary of the Saudi company Almarai. Almarai started buying land and water rights in the southwestern U.S. after the Saudi government determined alfalfa was too water-intensive to grow domestically.
The report also singles out the almond industry, which grew by 78 percent between 2010 and 2022, despite relentless drought. According to the report, almond and pistachio growing consumed an estimated 523 billion more gallons of water in 2021 than in 2017, which is equivalent to the indoor water use of 34 million people. The report notes that this expansion has particularly benefited the Wonderful Company, owned by Stewart and Lynda Reznick, who are among the wealthiest farmers in the world.
The state’s mega-dairies are rapidly expanding, too. According to the report, the industry now uses more than 142 million gallons of water a day.
Newsom’s current drought strategy, the report says, is “promoting industry boondoggles like desalination and building massive tunnel projects to further complicate California’s water system.” Instead, the authors argue, state officials should define water as a public resource and strictly regulate the way agriculture uses it, curtail groundwater pumping and enforce mandatory conservation measures throughout the state.