Farmers see no shortage of issues with California drought

California currently finds itself in a squeeze for a tenable water supply, leaving residents and farmers at a loss. As the ongoing California drought has only worsened over the past few years, earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 25% mandatory reduction in potable water usage through Feb. 28, 2016. This is specifically directed at the state’s 430 local water supply agencies, from which California residents receive about 90% of their water.

It’s no surprise that long-term deficits have and will continue to have significant effects on agriculture in the state and across the country. A study from the University of California, Davis, found that total direct costs to agriculture in 2014 were $1.5 billion. This includes $1 billion in revenue losses and $0.5 billion in additional pumping costs, totaling about 3% of California’s total agricultural value. Statewide, economic costs of the drought in 2014 were $2.2 billion.

While larger farmers are not included in the 25% reduction, they have already had to deal with the drought in their own ways long before the reduction was mandated.

A bleak outlook for California farmers

Since the drought began in 2012, the situation and outlook for California farmers has drastically changed. As of March 31, the USDA reports that more than 97% of the state’s $43 billion agricultural industry was suffering severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, and livestock has been hit even harder than crops.

In California, fruit, tree nuts, and vegetables comprise most of California’s agricultural output. San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast district generate more than 75% of the state’s fruit and tree nuts on a farm-value basis and nearly 70% of vegetable farm value. These two areas are included in the those suffering from exceptional drought, the highest severity level of drought effects ratings.

The federal government is responding to the drought by withholding water allocations, delivering about 20% of requested water this year. The Farm Bureau reports that overall water deliveries to Central Valley growers decreased by 32.5% in 2014. Many California crops, once robust in size, are shrinking due to the water shortage, and farmers in rural parts of the state did not plant about 5% of farmland this year.

To survive the drought, California farmers are tapping groundwater reserves, and the UC Davis study found that some areas have more than doubled their pumping rate over the past year. In past wet years, farmers used groundwater for irrigation assuming that rain and snow would replenish the reserves. However, in current dry years, groundwater may now account for up to 46% or even 60% of farmers’ irrigation supply, with little promise of precipitation to replenish it.

If this amount of groundwater pumping continues, farmers’ ability to pump these reserves will slowly decrease, causing costs and losses to rise as a result of depleting groundwater. The state passed a law recently to require sustainable groundwater planning, but the timeline to enact such changes is about 30 years, which means it could take many years for a clear definition and policy for sustainability to take place—much longer than is needed to handle the drought right now.

In some areas, this situation is pitting farmer against farmer as they haggle over seniority and water rights within California’s century-old water rights system. That system is largely based on self-reporting with little oversight, and depending on a farmer’s seniority, he may have the ability to use all the water he needs, in spite of the drought. The governor may rethink this system if the drought persists.

Is California farmers’ situation misunderstood?

If farmers didn’t have enough troubles with the drought, they’ve had another one handed to them—a PR problem. Many news outlets have reported that California farmers use about 80% of the state’s water supply to irrigate crops, which has irked environmentalists and some residents, who must now cut back significantly on their daily water use. Some in the agriculture industry fear that this statistic could be used to vilify farmers, which could lead to efforts to restrict farmers’ own water rights.

However, this 80% figure may not be wholly accurate in the way it is portrayed. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about 50% of California's water supply is used by the state’s dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and other infrastructure diverted for environmental reasons, such as supporting wetlands within wildlife preserves. With that factored in, farmers actually only use about 40% of the state’s water supply. Where the 80% figure comes into play is that agriculture makes up about 80% of human water use, not the water supply as a whole.

Unfortunately, for some farmers, the PR problems don't end there. California almonds are another topic of discussion as the crop, which is surging in popularity, drains a significant amount of the state's agricultural water supply. Global consumption of California almonds has jumped about 1,000% in just the past decade. A gallon of water is needed to grow each individual nut, which, in California, totals about 1.07 trillion gallons per year. That's about 20% more than the amount of water California families use indoors.

The California drought shows no sign of slowing, to the chagrin of farmers, consumers, and the government alike. Following the agriculture industry and how it attempts to bounce back from these issues will take place over the next several years, if not decades. But hopefully farmers can be innovative enough in water usage, crop planting, and livestock feed to weather the storm—or lack thereof.

Filed Under: Manufacturing Sustainability
Top image credit: Flickr; Wonderlane