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

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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