California’s Water Footprint

Gabriella DiGiovanni

Gabriella DiGiovanni › Gabriella is a local food supporter, new-found vegan, lover of the outdoors, music enthusiast and college ...


Aside from apples and winter squashes, food shopping in the northeast at this time of year tends to result in fewer locally grown items in the cart. Despite being the off-season for many fruits and vegetables, it is still not difficult to pick up most produce year round. Although our stomachs might appreciate the constant availability of items like grapes and lettuce, our minds might question the sustainability of such a market. From where, and by what means, are these items coming to the refrigerator? In the grocery store, take a look at the majority of goods in the produce section and you will find a trend: grown in California.

The Golden State has been the top agricultural leader for over 50 years, and is responsible for producing nearly half of the fruits and veggies that are distributed across the United States. The state is home to a staggering 81,700 farms of the total 2,204,792 in the United States (USDA).

What does this all mean for California’s agricultural sustainability? An Oakland-based Pacific Institute report released in December 2012 found that California’s water footprint per year is approximately 19 million acre-feet or 6.3 trillion gallons of water attributed to California’s exports, which are mainly agricultural. The state is a net importer of virtual water, which is water hidden in food or other commodities. It seems curious that California is a net importer of water but remains one of the top exporters of agricultural commodities in the United States. The state can afford to export so much of its own water in agricultural commodities because of its importation of other water demanding goods that were made by using other region’s resources.

There is much to consider when purchasing produce grown out of state. As the key limiting resource in our world, water is an integral aspect in considering the sustainability of agriculture in our nation.

While California’s water footprint is something to think about, the state’s leadership in the burgeoning movement towards a more sustainable and organic food system seems to be a good sign. The State Board of Food and Agriculture and California Department of Food and Agriculture, partnered with the American Farmland Trust, released goals in December 2010 for a more sustainable food supply in the report “California Agricultural Vision: Strategies for Sustainability” (Ag Vision).

Among other environmentally and socially directed goals, the Ag Vision report recognizes the need to “secure an adequate supply of water for agricultural purposes” and to “adopt a policy of conserving agricultural land and water resources” (Progress Report). In 2012 the Ag Vision team stated California is on track to meet the goals of the report through efforts from the coalition of those involved in the initiative. The team recognizes farmers and ranchers as two key players in reaching goals; however, collaboration with urban players is equally important in properly distributing resources needed for successful agricultural and urban development.

As of 2008, the National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted the Organic Production Survey, finding 2,691 organic farms in California. The state is ranked number one for most certified organic farms in the U.S, including vegetable and melon farms, berry farms, and fruit and tree nut farms (USDA). California is also a leader in higher educational institutions that offer programs in sustainable agriculture research, agroecology and biodynamic agriculture.

There is much to consider when purchasing produce grown out of state. As the key limiting resource in our world, water is an integral aspect in considering the sustainability of agriculture in our nation. A more responsible water management strategy is needed to ensure food security. While organic practices and goals in Ag Vision promote more conservative water usage and environmentally friendly land stewardship, it may be wise to rely less heavily on imported food goods to preserve and protect the future of food.


California Agricultural Vision: From Strategies to Results: Progress Report. Spring 2012. American Farmland Trust.

Fulton, Julian et al. California’s Water Footprint. Pacific Institute. December 2012.

Klonsky, Karen. A Look at California’s Organic Agriculture Production. Agricultural and Resource Economics Update 14(2)(2010):8-11. December 2010.

2007 Census of Agriculture. Farm Numbers. USDA.

2011 State Agriculture Overview. California.

How much of your purchased produce comes from California? Would it be difficult for you to source locally grown produce during the winter months?

Photo Credit: Gabriella DiGiovanni