Eat Your Salad While You Can—There May Not Be Any Lettuce This Winter

Most of it comes from Arizona and there's not enough water.

A large field of lettuce growing near the foothills in Yuma, Arizona.

Lisay / Getty Images

Lettuce is stupid. I've said it before and there's even a website dedicated to the polarizing opinion. Tamar Haspel wrote in The Washington Post that "lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table" and "a head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious." The Evian is also a lot easier to transport.

What is even stupider is that, according to Bloomberg, 90% of the lettuce that we nibble on between November and March comes from Arizona. The state has almost no water other than what comes from the Colorado River, and the U.S. Interior Department is cutting Arizona's allocation by 21%.

Hoover dam

David McNew / Getty Images

The problem is the ongoing drought in the west, which has reduced the water volume in Lake Mead, the artificial reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, by 73%. The western states cannot agree on how to divide up the water, so the feds are divvying it up.

Arizona is complaining. According to the Washington Post, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke called it “unacceptable” that his state must “continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.”

Meanwhile, all these foods that are grown in Arizona require a huge amount of water, which is why agriculture uses 72% of its allocation. It takes 15 gallons of water to grow a pound of lettuce, much of which is prepackaged in plastic bags, significantly adding to the water load. Treehugger Editorial Director Melissa Breyer noted that it's triple-washed and still needs to be washed again.

California farmers are complaining too. Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition said in a statement:

“California farms produce over half of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. California foods aren’t just in the produce aisle, but also in the ready-made foods and ingredients we eat every single day. That can’t happen without water and we cannot simply move California production to other states. A safe, affordable, domestic food supply is a national security issue, just like energy. The government must make it a priority."

But Wade doesn't address the fundamental question: Where is the water going to come from?

The drought in the west has been going on for 23 years. And like the national security issue of energy, the best way to deal with the problem is to use less and use it wisely. And what is the government doing about it? According to a press release from the Interior Department, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.

“The worsening drought crisis impacting the Colorado River Basin is driven by the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and low precipitation. In turn, severe drought conditions exacerbate wildfire risk and ecosystems disruption, increasing the stress on communities and our landscapes,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. 

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo.

food poster

US Food Administration

The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation goes on to make a number of recommendations and proposed actions for basin-wide conservation but never really addresses the question of how the water is used, such as asking, "Um, do we really need so much lettuce in February?" If "a safe, affordable, domestic food supply is a national security issue," does it not make sense to look at what we are eating and when? That's what people used to do when food was a national security issue. Americans changed their diets to eat what was available and adapted to the seasons.

Technology, from irrigation to refrigeration, changed the way we eat, and as Treehugger Senior Editor Katherine Martinko noted in "A Brief History of Lettuce." This is where it started.

"Lettuce was the first fresh produce that Americans were able to buy any day or week of the year. Prior to this, they relied on root vegetables like cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. Lettuce exploded onto the culinary scene when growers in California's Salinas Valley figured out how to send train cars filled with iceberg lettuce across the continent to diners in New York City, Boston, and Chicago."

We have been doing this ever since, without questioning whether it is a good idea to use so much energy and water to eat what Haspel called "a leafy-green waste of resources." What might be a better way is to go out to your farmers market now and enjoy the bounty of local, different, delicious varieties and gorge on them while you can.

Martinko, who belongs to a CSA, wrote:

"My fridge to bursting with salad greens every week. We get different varieties in such quantities that, at this time of year, my family has to eat salad with every meal or else we won't finish it all before the next weekly batch arrives. I'm still not an advocate of bagged salad greens for many reasons, not least of all because I try to eat as seasonally, locally, and waste-free as possible—and yes, that does mean going without green salad for months on end in the winter."

The water crisis is another manifestation of the climate crisis. Dealing with water faces the same problems that we have with carbon emissions or energy prices: Nobody wants to give anything up. Nobody wants to change anything. Not having lettuce on your burger in February would be unAmerican. But you may have no choice when the water runs out.

View Article Sources
  1. "Interior Department Announces Actions to Protect Colorado River System, Sets 2023 Operating Conditions for Lake Powell and Lake Mead." U.S. Department of the Interior, 2022.

  2. "Arizona's Water Supplies." Arizona Water Facts.

  3. Hoekstra, Arjen Y.  “The Water Footprint of Food.” Water Footprint Network.