Dry Counties

The drought in California keeps getting worse, with almost 60% of the state now facing “exceptional drought,” the most severe condition on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale and the worst recorded since it started issuing reports in 1990. To date, California is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet.

The early August thunderstorms that delivered devastating torrents of rain in some areas were "inconsequential" in terms of easing the worsening drought.

The entire state has been in some level of drought since May, but more of it has since fallen into more severe categories -- "extreme" and "exceptional." Nearly 22% more of California was added into the exceptional drought category in July.

Despite the drought, food prices have so far been largely unaffected. Prices for high-value California crops like nuts, wine grapes and dairy producsts are driven more by market demand, than by the drought.

But a new report from the University of California, Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences, shows that California agriculture is weathering the drought by utilizing groundwater reserves. It says the nation’s produce basket may come up dry in the future if it continues to treat those reserves like an ATM.

The study found that the drought is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third.

Groundwater pumping is expected to replace most river water losses, with some areas more than doubling their pumping rate over the previous year, the study said. More than 80 percent of this replacement pumping occurs in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin.

“California’s agricultural economy overall is doing remarkably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves,” said Jay Lund, a co-author of the study. “But we expect substantial local and regional economic and employment impacts. We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts.”

Other key findings of the drought’s effects in 2014:

  • Direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion (revenue losses of $1 billion and $0.5 billion in additional pumping costs). This net revenue loss is about 3 percent of the state’s total agricultural value.
  • The total state-wide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion.
  • The loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs related to agriculture represents 3.8 percent of farm unemployment.
  • 428,000 acres, or 5 percent, of irrigated cropland is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California due to the drought.
  • The Central Valley is hardest hit, particularly the Tulare Basin, with projected losses of $800 million in crop revenue and $447 million in additional well-pumping costs.
  • Overdraft of groundwater is expected to cause additional wells in the Tulare Basin to run dry if the drought continues.
  • Agriculture on the Central Coast and in Southern California will be less affected by this year’s drought, with about 19,150 acres fallowed, $10 million in lost crop revenue and $6.3 million in additional pumping costs.
  • Statewide dairy and livestock losses from reduced pasture and higher hay and silage costs represent $203 million in revenue losses. 
  • The drought is likely to continue through 2015, regardless of El Niño conditions.

In related news, The New York Times is out with a new video highlighting the challenges California's historic drought is presenting for marijuana growers in the state.

While many farmers have taken steps to conserve water and grow the crop in an environmentally-friendly way, state officials say that illegal grows in areas like Lake County could be making the drought even worse by tapping into water sources illegally and leaving damaging chemicals in the soil.

"We're pissed, like anybody else, at the big growers " cannabis activist Nikki Lastreto said of the illegal grows. "[They're] putting bad stuff into the water, bad stuff into the ground."

With files from The Huffington Post, L.A. Times and UC Davis.


Photo Credit: 
Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times