California farmers face a new drought reality

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Barriers occur in nature as in politics and there is no better example than California's expanding drought.

Nature has built a brick wall, a mass of high pressure air that has been blocking Pacific winter storms from coming ashore in California, even delivering rain and cold weather to the East Coast. Similar high-pressure zones pop up all the time during most winters, but they usually break down, allowing rain to get through to California. This one, gloomily, has anchored itself for 13 months, since December 2012, making it unprecedented in modern weather records.

“It's like the Sierra -- a mountain range just sitting off the West Coast -- only bigger,” said Bob Benjamin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Monterey. “This ridge is sort of a mountain in the atmosphere. In most years, it comes and goes. This year it came and didn't go.”

The current high-pressure ridge is even stronger and more persistent than a similar ridge that parked over the Pacific Ocean during the 1976-77 drought, one of the worst in the 20th century. With each passing week, California's lack of rainfall becomes more serious.

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Last year was the driest calendar year in recorded history in California in most cities, with records going back 160 years. The first snowpack reading in the Sierra Nevada earlier this month found a snowpack of just 20 percent of normal.

Meanwhile, major reservoirs in Shasta and Oroville are each 36 percent full, about half of normal for this time of year. San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos is 30 percent full, 42 percent of normal. Major Bay Area water agencies haven't yet called for mandatory summer water restrictions, but are expected to make the decision soon.

“California water policy and management will need to prepare for this new reality and its seeming inevitability and find solutions that support a strong economy and a healthy environment, while easing transitions for vulnerable groups,” Jay Lund, Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, and Ellen Hanak, Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California said in a Water Blog. This has given the farm community a look at what they can expect:

1.  Reduced diversions of water from the Delta seems inevitable.  Greater environmental flow requirements are already reducing water available for agricultural and urban uses. New in-stream flow requirements and changes in climate seem likely to further reduce water diversions. This change will affect not only Delta water exporters - the current focus of policy actions - but also upstream and within-Delta diversions. [(Upstream diverters remove twice the water from the Delta as exporters and Delta water users combined (Lund et al. 2010)]. Reduced Delta diversions will significantly affect agricultural and urban water users and water management statewide.

2.  The Tulare Basin and San Joaquin River regions will have less irrigated agriculture.  The Central Valley south of the Delta is a vast and highly productive agricultural region that substantially lives on borrowed water. Local inflows supply only about two-thirds of the 15.3 million acre-feet (maf) that the Valley consumes annually, mostly for crops. The balance comes from Delta imports (4 maf/yr) and groundwater overdraft [(1-2 maf/yr - by far the most overdraft in California) (Hanak et al. 2011)].  About 2.7 maf/yr of fairly saline drainage water and rare flood waters leave the region from the San Joaquin River, whose natural outflow would be about 6 maf annually. Long-term reductions in groundwater overdraft, Delta imports and San Joaquin River diversions could reduce water availability to this region by 2-5 maf/year, requiring the permanent fallowing of up to 1-2 million acres of this region's 5 million irrigated acres. Some of this land will leave agricultural production for other reasons: Up to about 500,000 acres lack good drainage and are prone to salinization (USDOI 1990a, 1990b), and continued urbanization will further reduce farm acreage (Teitz et al. 2005). Although shifts to higher value crops (especially orchards) will likely maintain absolute growth in agricultural revenues and profits, some communities will be hard-hit by these transitions (Medellin-Azuara et al. 2011).

3.  California's groundwater will become more tightly and formally managed.  The same economic and environmental pressures that have led to tighter management and accounting of surface water in California will lead to more formalization of groundwater rights and management. Following decades of legal negotiations among users, aquifers in southern California and Silicon Valley are mostly adjudicated with formal pumping rights or managed by special districts with pumping fees (Blomquist 1992). Local efforts elsewhere are slowly moving towards more formal management (Nelson 2011).  Because pumped groundwater ultimately reduces surface water flows in most places, groundwater use rights will ultimately be tied to surface water rights and environmental impacts, as they are in some other states such as Colorado (Lund and Harter 2013).

Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency, “We're facing perhaps the worst drought California has seen since records began being kept 100 years ago…,” Brown said during a press conference in San Francisco. “This takes a coming together of all Californians.”

Brown stressed that the state also will continue to work to streamline voluntary water transfers to “make it easier for someone who has water to sell it to someone who needs more.” The governor cautioned, however, that the state can't govern its way out of a drought.”

And there are signs farmers are already adjusting to the new reality. Harris Farms has announced it won't plant lettuce this year because of water concerns. They are not alone. The Central Valley, already home to some of the highest unemployment numbers in California, will absorb more people without a paycheck. Westlands Water District, which is expected to receive little to no surface water this year plans to cutback acreage farmed to save water. District officials estimate that 200,000 acres out of 600,000 acres will not be farmed because of the shortage of water. About 15,000 to 20,000 acres of winegrape vines are expected to be pulled out according to wine broker Ciatti Co., the San Rafael, Calif.-based company said in an e-mailed report. The state has estimated wine grape acreage of 546,000 acres, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Ciatti adds, “The state is seeing a mass pullout of all low-bearing crops. Farmers have been forced to shift from crop diversification to salvaging crops that will provide them the most long-term sustainability.”

California accounted for 88 percent of U.S. wine production in 2012, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. The U.S. retail value of Californian wine was an estimated $22 billion in 2012, out of a total $34.6 billion in wine sold in the U.S.

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