California Drought: Virtual Water vs. Real Water

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published Feb. 27, 2014

By Jay Lund

There has been considerable kvetching during this drought about California exporting agricultural products overseas, with some saying that this implies we are virtually exporting water that we should be using in California.

Those concerned should take comfort with California’s major imports of virtual water. Much of the food consumed here comes from other states and countries, and their production, of course, requires water.

Much of the corn fed to California’s dairy cattle is grown on Midwest farms with Midwest water. And much of our clothing is made of imported cotton, a water-intensive crop, or made from petrochemicals, which used oil and water from elsewhere.

Tremendous amounts of water also is needed to grow Oregon’s forests that supply a lot of the lumber framing our new homes, to produce the steel in cars shipped to California and to run factories in China and Malaysia that make our computers and smart phones. Think of the virtual water all these other countries and states are exporting to us.

We live in a world of virtual flows of goods and services that produce the real goods and services we willingly buy in favor of less-efficiently made local goods and services. The economics of production are important – virtual water is not.

The virtual water notion can be applied to other production inputs. Consider California’s many virtual immigrants — people who did not need to move here because we import the products they make in other states and countries. Consider virtual energy use; some of the energy used to make your iPhone came from Iran via China, virtually avoiding trade sanctions with Iran.

“Virtual water” and related “water footprint” calculations are cute and popular. We can have lots of fun with the idea of a virtual this and that. (Virtual manure can be imagined coming and going from California and flowing globally.) These notions have some value for raising public consciousness on the roles and importance of water. But the wide range of water values and opportunity costs across the globe and over time commonly makes these calculations misleading.

Talk of virtual water distracts from serious discussion of economic, environmental and hydrological objectives and processes important for real water and environmental systems to function. Virtual water discussions are all the more counterproductive coming in the midst of a very real and serious drought.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Frontier Economics (2008), The concept of ‘virtual water’ — a critical review, Report for the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, Australia.

Iyer, R.R. (2012), Virtual water: Some reservations, GWF Discussion Paper 1218, Global Water Forum, Canberra, Australia.

Merrett, Stephen W. (2003), ‘Virtual water’ and Occam’s razor, Occasional Paper No 62, SOAS Water Issues Study Group, School of Oriental and African Studies/King’s College London, University of London.

Neubert, Susanne (2008), “Strategic Virtual Water Trade – A Critical Analysis of the Debate,” in W. Scheumann et al. (eds.), Water Politics and Development Cooperation, 123 doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-6707-76, Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg 2008

Wichelns, Dennis (2010), Virtual Water and Water Footprints Offer Limited Insight Regarding Important Policy Questions, Water Resources Development, Vol. 26, No. 4, 639–651, December.

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18 Responses to California Drought: Virtual Water vs. Real Water

  1. Brad says:

    What Mr. Lund dismisses as “kvetching” I see as raising valid concerns about how water is used in our state. That unrestrained, unsustainable agricultural practices are killing rivers and wildlife habitat is indisputable. Straw man arguments about virtual immigration, etc. take the focus off the realities of how we collect and use water in the state and how we allow certain agricultural businesses to externalize costs to the public and environment as if profit for their owners is sacred above all else.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fraser Shilling says:

    Jay Lund’s comments unnecessarily over-simplify a complex issue that is critical to address in the context of global trade. Saying virtual water is just “cute” and “popular”, presumably compared to “real water”, is like saying financial instruments have no meaning and we must refer to gold when discussing economics. When water-intensive manufacturing of goods and services takes place in water-scarce areas, like California, and those goods and services are exported, then virtual water is how we attach hydrological significance to the flows in global trade. We in California are net importers of virtual water, but that does not reduce the amount of real water used to grow exported foods. By using measurements of real water to calculate virtual water and water footprints, we are able to understand the relative importance of our imports and exports to our economy, social well-being, and ecosystems. These two related ideas, virtual water and water footprints are the instruments that allow for “serious discussion of economic, environmental and hydrological objectives and processes important for real water and environmental systems to function.” This is especially true in the face of multi-year droughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Taking it up a notch, I think the bigger issue — worldwide — is regional self-sufficiency and how that plays into each region’s definition of sustainable water uses. I would appreciate Jay and others at the Center for Watershed Sciences address that piece as a continuation of this subject.

      Like

  3. jaylund says:

    Environmental, economic, and social performance of water systems seem like reasonable management objectives. “Virtual” water is something else – sometimes interesting, but more often distracting from environmental, economic, and social objectives. Water is not important for itself, but only for these other more fundamental objectives.

    Others are welcome to pursue water for its own sake, if this is their philosophical or religious orientation for some reason. De gustibus non est disputandum. But pursuing water as an objective, will come at costs to what seem to be more fundamental environmental, economic, and social objectives. This seems to apply for any geographic scale.

    Globalization has its problems, but global food markets have allowed only a modest loss to California’s agriculture in this severe drought, and largely prevent the kinds of drought-related famine and pestilence that used to plague humans with purely local economies.

    Like

    • So virtual water, then, has helped California survive droughts, especially this one, without much in the way of food shortages. I think it follows that virtual water is not a cute distraction, but rather vitally important to our future and something we should take very seriously. Yes, we have very real water problems to address in California, and we can try to agree on management objectives, but are we to ignore water problems elsewhere in regions that we increasingly depend on for water (through trade)? Water systems are interconnected, as are our social/economic systems, so I don’t see how we can pretend to manage an isolated water system any more than we can a local economy. Let’s not put the blinders up. Rather, let’s acknowledge, as we have started to with greenhouse gas management, that we live in an interconnected world. Water, by its nature, is shared globally, and humans, by our role in that nature, share it. The virtual water concept is a nod to this acknowledgment and we can improve it to compliment, not distract from, the hard-fought water management objectives that we so badly need.

      Liked by 1 person

    • emgersh says:

      You are correct in your assertions. . . assuming they play out in an economic laboratory where everything is priced ideally in relation to its full cost throughout its part in economic and environmental systems. In such a world, we wouldn’t be growing Alfalfa for domestic OR international use. It’s value is too low, it’s environmental costs too high and there’s nothing remotely special about California as a location to grow it.

      Unfortunately, in our dysfunctional water management system in California, that isn’t even remotely the case. Water is priced too low and given to uses that are economically and environmentally unsound without regard to future planning. Ground water usage is, essentially, a free for all in which those with the money to drill plunder our aquifers, steal water from their neighbors and deplete resources that are needed for future generations.

      In such a world, it isn’t fanaticism to speak of water or virtual water and it isn’t reducing it to an abstraction akin to contemplating our toilet bowls to think beyond the simple dollar value of the “virtual water” exported from our increasingly dry state!

      Water is more than a simple commodity and we can’t simply import more “virtual water” to make up for what we don’t have. It is the essence of life itself, as much as the air we breath. Without enough of it, California will cease to flourish economically or even be habitable for the large populations it is now home to.Considering that some 60 – 80% of the water available for human use goes to produce less than 2% of our gross state product, we might want to take a closer look at that business and make sure its as efficient as possible and the best use of an increasingly scarce resource.

      Like

  4. Pingback: Blog round-up: Virtual water versus real water; Legal pot growing would only require 10,000 acres; Delta voluntary cuts challenged; plus drought bills, groundwater, river restoration, water markets and more …MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTE

  5. Pingback: Blog round-up: Virtual water versus real water; Legal pot growing would only require 10,000 acres; Delta voluntary cuts challenged; plus almonds and transfers, drought bills, groundwater, river restoration, water markets and more …MAVEN'S NOTEB

  6. Larry Farwell says:

    Sorry Jay. Treating all water as equal instead of identifying some exported water as being overdraft / overuse is odd. Exporting forest products that were rain-fed is different that exporting almonds grown with overdrafted water from subsiding basins. Similar perhaps to exporting food to England when the Irish were starving.

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    • jaylund says:

      If aquifer water is so scarce, we should raise it’s price. The new SGMA is likely to cause this to happen.

      As noted by some hydrologists, the rainwater that feeds the trees is also water use that reduces flows to reservoirs. No easy distinctions in this business.

      Real water simply does not work economically or environmentally like the neat assumptions of most water footprinting frameworks.

      Like

  7. Charles Raguse says:

    Larry Farwell’s comment is simple and straightforward. It seems a bit odd that this basic difference is not more generally understood.

    Like

  8. Peter Gleick says:

    I’m with Larry, Fraser, and Julian here: the concepts (and the reality) of virtual water and water footprinting are tremendously valuable tools for helping to understand the flows and uses of water, for expanding our understanding beyond simple internal/regional water balances, and for helping individuals think more broadly about their own consumption patterns and priorities. But even further, I disagree with Jay’s assessment that these tools are simply “cute and popular,”counterproductive,” or a distraction — they have serious implications for water policy. Since this piece was originally published more than a year ago, several comprehensive assessments of both the actual (quantitative) water footprints of California production, imports, and exports, as well as the footprints of our energy system, have been published, together with strategic discussions of water policy. Perhaps Jay hasn’t seen them — they aren’t in the references in the earlier piece reposted here. For readers interested, you might look here:

    Fulton, J., H. Cooley, P.H. Gleick. 2014. Water footprint outcomes and policy relevance change with scale considered: Evidence from California. Water Resources Management, Vol. 28, Issue 11, pp. 3637-3649, Springer, Netherlands. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11269-014-0692-1.

    Fulton, J. and H. Cooley. 2015. The Water Footprint of California’s Energy System, 1990–2012. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (6), pp 3314–3321. DOI: 10.1021/es505034x. Publication Date (Web): February 26, 2015

    Like

    • jaylund says:

      The ideas of virtual water and footprinting are interesting and thought-provoking, but ultimately bare little physical relationship to real water problems and social objectives for water management. They tend to distract policy makers into the shallow end of the pool.

      The references below (and above), from around the world, are pretty insightful on this:

      Frontier Economics (2008), The concept of ‘virtual water’ — a critical review, Report for the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, Australia.

      Iyer, R.R. (2012), Virtual water: Some reservations, GWF Discussion Paper 1218, Global Water Forum, Canberra, Australia.

      Merrett, Stephen W. (2003), ‘Virtual water’ and Occam’s razor, Occasional Paper No 62, SOAS Water Issues Study Group, School of Oriental and African Studies/King’s College London, University of London.

      Neubert, Susanne (2008), “Strategic Virtual Water Trade – A Critical Analysis of the Debate,” in W. Scheumann et al. (eds.), Water Politics and Development Cooperation, 123 doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-6707-76, Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg 2008

      Wichelns, Dennis (2010), Virtual Water and Water Footprints Offer Limited Insight Regarding Important Policy Questions, Water Resources Development, Vol. 26, No. 4, 639–651, December.

      Like

  9. mittimithai says:

    I am a little confused by Jay’s general statement about virtual water.

    waterfoorprint.org makes a very clear case that the best way to reduce one’s water footprint is through reducing intake of meat and dairy. I’ve taken the data shown on this website for agricultural water usage in CA and it is very clear that animal forage (alfalfa, a portion of corn takes up the lion’s share of water (and, according to waterfootprint, amongst the least efficient sources of calories, protein and fat):

    Waterfootprints from animal agriculture have been largely ignored in public state-sponsored water campaigns or else are subsumed under “farming”. If find it a puzzling position that water footprints “bare little physical relationship to real water problems and social objectives for water management”.

    Like

    • mittimithai says:

      Ugh, apologies unintelligible typos in the first paragraph, corrected:

      I am a little confused by Jay’s general statement about virtual water.

      waterfoorprint.org makes a very clear case that the best way to reduce one’s water footprint is through reducing intake of meat and dairy. I’ve taken the data shown on this website for agricultural water usage in CA and it is very clear that animal forage (alfalfa, a pasture and a portion of corn) takes up the lion’s share of water. According to waterfootprint (and some common sense about trophic levels) meat and diary are amongst the least efficient sources of calories, protein and fat:

      Like

  10. Pingback: Blog round-up: Virtual water versus real water; Legal pot growing would only require 10,000 acres; Delta voluntary cuts challenged; plus almonds and transfers, drought bills, groundwater, river restoration, water markets and more …MAVEN'S NOTEB

  11. Todd Shuman says:

    I agree with Jay that the concept of virtual water can be oversold, and can confuse if not used carefully (and often it is not used carefully). On the other hand, when lots of scarce water and very little labor is used to grow crops that are immediately exported overseas — and when those crops should arguably be held in reserve to supply severely-stressed-out California-based industry and California workers — then the concept seems to have some utility. Virtual water export as a concept seems to make sense to me in this context: 24,000 tons of SE CA-grown alfalfa were sold for international export for the week ending June 26 — tonnage that probably required 15-20 TAF of Colorado River water to produce. Is that a problem, and how does it relate to the concept of virtual water? First, as noted above, very little labor is used to grow that alfalfa. As such, those alfalfa exports to China, Japan, Korea, and the United Arab Emirates do almost nothing for the rural working class population of California, and absolutely nothing for dairy workers in the Central Valley . Second, depleting potential livestock feed supplies for California dairy operations in the middle of a drought will likely increase the odds in the future that the SWRCB will kow-tow further to the demands of livestock feed crop growers and dairies alike to allocate more scarce surface water flows to farmers instead of endangered native fisheries in the Delta or other potential beneficial environmental or non-livestock-related agricultural uses. In short, the export of virtual water (via export of CA-grown alfalfa using minimal labor) is likely to aggravate existing water crises. If that alfalfa (and the water used to grow it) is not exported, maybe the crises are less likely to explode in the future

    Like

  12. Andrew A. says:

    Jay, I’m 100% with you, and it’s unfortunate that the other writers here can’t grasp the logic. I think it might be useful to mention almonds (or another high-value, high water-use crop) to illustrate the point.

    I didn’t speak it as plainly as you did, but I wrote a piece similar to this on the limitations of water footprinting. I think it’s interesting to consider things like carbon footprinting, though, because spatial heterogeneity may play less of a role. Check it out if you please:

    http://brenresearchblog.com/the-shortcomings-of-water-footprinting/

    Like

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