Menus Subscribe Search

Trading ‘Virtual’ Water

• June 10, 2009 • 4:05 PM

Do exports of water-intensive crops hurt drought-prone California?

In the Imperial Valley of California, a region drier than part of the Sahara Desert, farmers have found a lucrative market abroad for a crop they grow with Colorado River water: They export bales of hay to land-poor Japan.

Since the mid-1980s, this arid border region of California has been supplying hay for Japan’s dairy cows and black-haired cattle, the kind that get daily massages, are fed beer and produce the most tender Kobe beef.

Container ships from Japan unload electronics and other goods in the Port of Long Beach, and the farmers fill up the containers with hay for the trip back across the Pacific. Since the containers would otherwise return empty, it ends up costing less to ship hay from Long Beach to Japan than to California’s Central Valley.

“Everything is done for economics,” said Ronnie Leimgruber, an Imperial Valley hay grower who is expanding into the export market. “Japan cannot get hay cheaper. The freight is cheaper from Long Beach than from anywhere else in the world.”

Water is cheap for valley farmers, too: urban rates there are four times as high. It costs only $100 to irrigate an acre of hay in the desert for a year.

But what makes economic sense to farmers may not be rational behavior for California in the third year of a severe drought, say some conservationists. At the very least, they contend, the growing state debate over water allocation should take into account the exports of crops such as hay and rice — two of the most water-intensive crops in the West — because they take a toll on local rivers and reservoirs.

“This is water that is literally being shipped away,” said Patrick Woodall, research director at Food and Water Watch, an international consumer advocacy group with headquarters in Washington, D.C. “There’s a kind of insanity about this. Exporting water in the form of crops is giving water away from thirsty communities and infringing on their ability to deal with water scarcity. This is a place where some savings could be made now, and it’s just not being discussed.”

Now, estimates of hay exports from California range from 1.5 to 7 percent of the state’s total hay production. In 2008, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis, California exported between 617,000 and 765,000 tons of hay, some of it originally brought in from other western states. Most of it was shipped to Japan. A minimum of 450,000 acre-feet of water was required to grow the exported hay – roughly what the city of San Diego uses in two years.

In 2008, the U.C. Davis data show, California exported 52 percent of its rice production, much of it to Japan. The California Rice Commission, a trade group representing 2,500 rice farmers, estimates that rice uses 2.2 million acre-feet of irrigation water yearly, about 2.6 percent of the state’s total water supply. Rice exports, then, soaked up about 1.1 million acre-feet of water in 2008, or enough water to supply the city of Los Angeles for a year and eight months.

By another estimate, with every pound of rice that leaves the U.S., about 250 gallons of “virtual” or “embedded” water used in growing and processing rice leaves along with it, according to “Water Footprints of Nations,” a 2004 study from the Netherlands for UNESCO (The report spawned the Web site www.waterfootprint.com.)

But Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, said water statistics and the notion that rice is a “monsoon crop grown in the desert” don’t tell the whole story.

“These are the same old arguments we heard back in 1990 when California had its last drought,” he said.

Rice exports help bolster Japan’s aging farm base and they provide high-paying jobs at California ports, Johnson said. Moreover, he said, rice is grown on heavy clay soil that can’t be used for other crops, and the paddies provide a habitat for more than 200 wildlife species.

“There’s no other crop that does as much for wildlife in the West as rice,” Johnson said. “The fullness of the discussion — not just how many units of water goes into an individual crop — is what’s needed.”

Research on virtual water trade is centered in Europe, where countries such as the Netherlands are dependent on crop imports from Brazil and other water-rich nations. Here, the virtual trade in water is viewed as beneficial because it can relieve the pressure on scarce water supplies in small countries and help developing countries farm out some of the cost of building new dams and aqueducts. Worldwide, studies show, the countries most dependent on imports of virtual water are the Netherlands, Jordan, Japan and Korea, in that order.

But organizations such as the France-based World Water Council caution that “countries can in some cases damage their environment by exporting virtual water.”

The UNESCO research shows that Australia, a country now in the grips of its worst drought on record, is the largest net exporter of virtual water in the world. Recently, Australia set up an independent water authority for the first time to set sustainable limits on water use in the country’s most important agricultural region. Still, no one is telling farmers what they can and can’t grow.

“That is not our role,” said Howard Conkey, a spokesman for the country’s Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

As the drought deepened last fall in California, the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading think tanks on water conservation, suggested that a shift of just 25 percent of hay and rice and other low-value, high-water-use field crops in the Central Valley to higher value, more water-efficient vegetable crops could be beneficial both to farmers and the environment.

The institute’s report, “More With Less, Agricultural Conservation and Efficiency in California,” estimated that such a shift would raise crop value by $5 billion and, at the same time, save 1.1 million acre-feet of irrigation water, an amount equivalent to what seven dams could provide.

Neither hay nor rice ranks in the top five California export crops in terms of total value. In 2007, according to the U.C. Davis Agricultural Issues Center, the state’s top-value export crop was almonds, at $1.9 billion. Rice was eighth on the list and hay was 18th, with export values of $313 million and $134 million, respectively.

Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, believes that if the drought “gets bad enough,” politicians will start questioning how California uses its water, including for trade.

“I think it’s inevitable that the growing scarcity of water is going to force policymakers to come to grips with some of these issues like appropriate exports of water,” Gleick said. “We need someone challenging the way water rights are allocated.”

But Dan Putnam, an alfalfa specialist with the U.C. Cooperative Extension at Davis, says the institute is “dead wrong” in its analysis of potential crop shifts in the Central Valley. Vegetables are riskier than hay, a bread-and-butter crop that pays the bills and guarantees farmers a steady cash flow, Putnam said. Alfalfa improves the soil in rotation with vegetables, he said, and it has a higher yield per unit of water than, say, walnuts or lettuce. Hay also produces more nutritional value, Putnam said, because of its importance to the dairy industry.

“If you take the viewpoint that only the highest-value uses of water should prevail, that’s a policy of urbanization,” he said. “A high-rise for lawyers in Sacramento will yield more dollars per unit of water than any agricultural crop. … What does it matter whether we export hay or not? It is kind of an odd thing to ship hay to Japan, but we ship lumber around the world. We should allow farmers to make intelligent decisions about what crops to grow.”

Leimgruber, the Imperial Valley hay farmer and vice chairman of the California Farm Bureau‘s hay advisory committee, says that’s exactly what he’s doing. Hay exports help the U.S. trade balance, allow products to be brought into California more cheaply, and employ a lot of local truck drivers and loaders, he said.

“I would rather use the water to grow a product we can sell to Japan than sell to a golf course to grow grass. It’s a global market, a whole economic circle.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.