Oil and gas drilling operations use hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater every year.

February 2023

Food and Water Watch Report –

Read the full report HERE

Climate change is wreaking havoc on California’s water stability. The state is mired in long-term drought, punctuated by relatively brief periods of extreme precipitation and catastrophic flooding. But the impacts of climate change on state water supplies only tell part of the story. Most of California’s water goes not for individual use, but instead to corporate agricultural and fossil fuel interests (Big Ag and Big Oil). These users reap tremendous profits, while more than 1 million Californians lack access to clean water.

Incidentally, these corporate agricultural and fossil fuel interests — consuming an exorbitant amount of freshwater resources in California — are also prime contributors to our global climate crisis.

California’s water system was developed decades ago, during a historic period of water abundance. But as that brief period faded and climate chaos accelerated, large corporate interests have maintained their water access through massive donations to politicians, lobbying, and “philanthropic” giving.

Moving forward, California cannot continue to allow these powerful interests to use and abuse the state’s water. Large almond operations owned by Beverly Hills billionaires, large factory farms that produce tremendous waste while using enough water to supply whole cities, and the fossil fuel industry that continues to fuel the climate crisis it spent years covering up can no longer be allowed to dictate California water policy or misuse vast quantities of the state’s water.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has started to make moves to rein in some of the worst abuses from oil production by championing legislation to stop oil drilling near homes and schools. But when it comes to water policy and the most egregious water abuses, he has been silent. Instead, he has championed industrial water schemes like desalination, large-scale water recycling, and building a massive tunnel around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. All of these approaches are expensive, energy-intensive, and dangerous for the environment.

Instead, as this report lays out, Governor Newsom, state regulators, and the state legislature need to chart a new course. They must develop new water policy for the state that makes good on the promise that Californians should have access to clean, reliable water and that stops the expansion of (and begins to roll back) the damaging industries using the most water.

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. 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.

On the intersecting issues of food, water, and climate, we are at a crossroads. Californians are looking to Governor Newsom for leadership. This report maps out an approach that would move California, boldly and with justice, into a sustainable water future.

Key Findings:

Climate change is making California drier. The state, along with the rest of the American West, may have already entered a period of perpetual mega-drought, with conditions in the coming decades predicted to be much drier than the present.
Large agribusinesses and oil and gas operators use massive and unsustainable amounts of water, permitted by ineffective regulations that put profits over people.

Expanded nut crop acres required more than 520 billion gallons more water in 2021 than just four years prior. Alfalfa irrigation guzzles around 945 billion gallons of water per year, and mega-dairies use more than 142 million gallons per day. Meanwhile, climate-polluting oil and gas operators devoured 3 billion gallons of freshwater between 2018 and 2021.

Water management and rights systems that give deference to corporations have allowed billions of gallons of California’s water to be exported overseas in the form of water-intensive products like almonds, alfalfa, and dairy.

California’s water rights are extraordinarily complicated — historically favoring large industry and agribusiness — and allow for trading with little transparency. The state’s precious groundwater is over-pumped and under-regulated. California’s attempt at regulation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, falls far short of protecting groundwater by delaying action until 2040 and prioritizing industry over the human right to water.

Communities are being denied the human right to water as thousands of wells are running dry across the state. Low-resource households, people of color, and communities already burdened with environmental injustices are more likely to face severe drought impacts and water shortages.

Key Recommendations:

  • Governor Newsom must use executive and emergency powers to immediately stop egregious misuse of California water. This includes preventing the planting of new almond and alfalfa acres on the salty, dry west side of the San Joaquin Valley, banning new mega-dairies, and ending new oil and gas drilling.

  • Governor Newsom and California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) must ensure that water rights and water allocations benefit the public. California’s water policy must advance the goal of the human right to water and ensure safe, clean, affordable, and accessible public water.

  • Governor Newsom must reject corporate schemes being peddled as water solutions — like costly desalination facilities, the proposed Delta Conveyance Project, and wastewater recycling. Instead, he must promote equitable and climate-friendly water solutions.

  • The California legislature should expressly define all water, including groundwater, as a public trust resource, and the government should protect and preserve this common resource for the public. The public trust doctrine, rooted in long-standing legal principles, enables states to hold and protect natural resources, putting the public interest before private interests and making it more difficult for private parties to inflict harm.

  • Congress must pass legislation — including the federal Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act — to fully fund our water and wastewater systems, put water systems back in the control of the public, help ensure water access and affordability, and restore the commitment of the federal government to protecting water.