California Drought Takes its Toll as Growers Struggle to Adjust to a “New Normal”

California continues to suffer as it swelters through its third driest year in recorded history. Water and soil are drying up as most of the state is enduring extreme (D3) or exceptional drought (D4), as defined by the US Drought Monitor. These conditions have led to a significant drop in water supplies and left soil around the state eroding. Many counties throughout California are asking residents to use less water as farms go out of business because of this diminishing resource.

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Water

In the early part of the last century, the state government of California signed long-term contracts allocating surface water to farms and cities promising annual quotas to established permit holders. Today, as the current drought ravages the state, the promised quotas are rarely fulfilled and farmers seldom receive even 50% of what was guaranteed. Marc Beoshanz, a technical sales representative for HM.CLAUSE says, “My growers that own their own ground are doing the best as they have wells to supplement surface water. Growers that lease ground are suffering the most and are having to go to new areas in search of ground with water.” Compounding this situation, the 2014 snowpack is only 18% of its normal levels. With municipalities and farms consuming about 43 million acre feet of water annually, one-third of which comes from snowpack, this lack of snow has further impacted the states critical water situation. Another 30-40% of California’s water supply comes from aquifers which have also seen constant decreases over the course of the past several years.

Overall, two-thirds of the water supply comes from northern California while two-thirds of the demand lies in the southern part of the state. This makes transportation costly as the water is pumped over mountain ranges. These two irreplaceable water resources are being replaced at a much slower rate than they are being removed which will ultimately lead to even more substational shortages in the future. These factors have led to what Howitt et al. calls the “greatest absolute reduction in water availability that agriculture has ever seen.” Simultaneously, soil across the state has lost much of its moisture. The USDA reported that 80% of California has 50% or more topsoil rated short or very short of moisture and 85% of the state has 50% or more of subsoil rated short or very short of moisture. Pair these two facts together and it could spell nothing short of agricultural disaster for the state and its growers who depend on water to substantiate their livelihoods.

Agriculture

Three years of drought have resulted in a loss of $2.2 billion to California’s economy and cost agriculture in the state $1.5 billion. Just this year, 5% of farmland fallowed and thousands of ag- related workers are out of business. Although the entire state is enduring this hardship, San Joaquin Valley finds itself bearing the burden of 60% of the state’s fallowed land as well as a loss of 70% of California’s agricultural annual income. Most crops were heavily impacted by the drought, for example, about one-fourth of California’s rice fields went fallow and grapes, oranges, hay, corn and pistachios yields declined dramatically. Almonds are considered a permanent crop and Beoshanz estimates “that in the past 3 years close to half a million acres of vegetable ground has been turned into orchard crops. As the drought gets worse the water goes to the trees and we lose sales because the vegetable acres are not being planted.” Almonds are worth over $4/lb this year but are also California’s most water intensive crop meaning that they too felt the effects of this drought. All of this is very apparent simply by driving down to the San Joaquin Valley and looking at the fallowed land covered with tumbleweeds and dying farmland. To make matters worse, it is estimated that by the end of the year 6.6 million acre feet of surface water will be unavailable to farmers according to research done by UC Davis.

Conditions are bad enough to effect job security. Calculating just how many jobs are no longer available is difficult because many workers are seasonal or temporary employees. Evidence, though, lies in the number of students no longer attending public schools, the increase of lines of people at food banks and available payroll data. Based on estimates provided by the state Employment Development Department and UC Davis, the amount of jobs lost falls somewhere between 2,700 to about 17,000 just this year alone.

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Legislation

These dire conditions have led to a vigorous governmental debate and a variety of legislative actions to help address the issue. On September 16th, 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed three bills that will limit the pumping of groundwater in the state of California. The three bills will authorize local agencies to design their own plans for reducing groundwater use based on economic and environmental factors. The specific goals set as the parameters for this project are:

  • By 2017, local groundwater management agencies must be identified;
  • By 2020, over drafted groundwater basins must have sustainability plans
  • By 2022, other high and medium priority basins are not currently in overdraft must have sustainability plans
  • By 2040, all high and medium priority groundwater basins must achieve sustainability.

Projections released by NOAA say that the drought will persist or intensify though at least December 31st of this year and will likely to continue through 2015. Water levels are declining rapidly, soil is depleted of moisture, farmers are being run out of business, and the state’s economy is taking a hit.

It’s important to start looking into the future and taking action now to reduce the impact of this drought. Seed companies have developed drought-resistant varieties and growers are taking the opportunity to try out the new products during this time of water shortage. These products, originally intended for other markets are now entering California regions as weather patterns continue to alter the environment.