WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 –No more status quo: Experts in water policy and economics say significant changes in how drought-plagued California uses its dwindling water supplies are likely for years to come.

While rain has frequented parts of New Mexico and Arizona this year, and more is forecast into fall, the National Weather Service expects little if any relief soon for California overall. The Center for Watershed Sciences (CWS) at the University of California, Davis, is projecting a 33 percent reduction in surface water supplies for farms and a $2.7 billion loss in 2015 to an estimated agricultural economy of around $46 billion.

Meanwhile, the consensus at a recent Farm Foundation water policy forum was that the state’s huge, diverse agricultural sector – which produces almost half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and a fifth of its dairy products -- will succeed this year and beyond by making adjustments as it hunkers down for the long haul.

Richard Howitt, CWS economist, says the drought has idled 7 percent to 8 percent more cropland than would normally be fallowed. Meanwhile, he says, “we’ve substituted groundwater for surface water.” In addition, acreage of bulk field crops, including rice, alfalfa and cotton, have been cut back, so that growing demands for high value fruit, nuts and vegetables can be met. Plus farmers have shifted production regionally to wetter areas.

Nonetheless, Howitt says, the conflicts over water access among urban, industrial, agricultural and environmental uses for wildlife will continue, as will shifts in farm production. He says the state’s 1.8 million-cow dairy herd will shrink as the dairy sector moves cows to more favorable areas, yet farmers will continue to expand almond orchards because they make sense economically in California. Yes, he says, it takes a gallon of water to produce an almond, “but it takes twice as much water to produce the same amount of protein in a hamburger.”

Another speaker, Barry Bogseth, who oversees agricultural lending for MetLife, says severe drought has “amped up” economic pressures on California’s farm sector, but he agrees with Howitt that “agriculture tends to shift in slow motion.” His company tries to look far ahead, committing credit where there is likely demand for farm products 10 to 20 years out, he says, and despite drought, “when farmers are asked to produce the world’s needs . . . they can make it happen.”

Also in the long term, says Howitt, California’s new groundwater management law will allow communities to stem the rapid depletion of well water where aquifers are being taxed too severely. The new law trumps the state’s historic property rights laws that “let you pump all you want to.” Local boards are charged with creating their own water use plans to oversee and divvy up access and protect groundwater supplies.

Beyond that, California will be moving more and more into improved water recycling and purification technology as the most efficient way to expand both urban and farm water supplies. Howitt points out that at present, four of six California plants to desalinate sea water are mothballed because their extreme energy demand and problematic leftover salt brine make them too costly.

Instead, says Lynn Broaddus, who heads Broadview Collaborative, a group focused on sustainable use of natural resources, many confined animal feeding operations, for example, will start recycling water. “Really, in essence, [a CAFO] is like a little city. Rather than humans living in the city, it’s somebody with two or four legs, and we should be able to reuse that water as well.”

Another broad impact of the West Coast drought on agriculture, Broadus says, may be to slow Americans’ mounting dependence on California produce, encouraging a shift back toward regions growing more of their own products – the mid-Atlantic or another area, for example, growing more of its own fruit and vegetables. The rising popularity of locally-produced foods, along with energy savings when foods are produced near their market, support such a shift. 


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