Drought devastating California farms, drying up jobs

Posted at 4:45 PM, Apr 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-12 10:27:14-04

California’s drought problems could have far-reaching impacts.

A disproportionate amount of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown in California, which ranks as the top produce in a number of popular foods.

To get a sense of the portion of the nation’s crops that come from California, check out this chart.

But the drought forced California farmers to fallow 500,000 acres of land in 2014. And the number could double in 2015, experts say.

“2015 is going to be significantly worse than 2014,” said Richard Howitt, an agriculture and resource economics expert at the University of California-Davis.

Drought relief did not come this winter — California’s wet season — as hoped. Though California is the third-largest state in landmass, nearly all of the state is abnormally dry at best and exceptional drought at worse.


“There’s been a drought of some extent for multiple years now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be ending anytime soon,” Storm Shield Meteorologist Jason Meyers said.

California-based trade organization Western Growers Association estimated 17,000 farm jobs were lost in 2014, Senior Director of Communications Wendy Fink-Weber said.

Other states could pick up some of the short-term demand, she said, but groves for some goods such as almonds often take three-to-seven years of investment before the first yield.

“Row crops can be fallowed for a year without any major issues, but fallowing permanent crops most likely means ripping out the trees and starting a new three-to-seven year cycle,” she said.

“You can have a plan where you just want to keep them alive,” Fink-Weber said. “The yield will be pretty puny, smaller fruit, you have less of it. But you can keep the trees alive. … And that’s probably what they’re planning to do right now, but some of them will have to be destroyed.”

For more on the costs of fruits and vegetables if California runs out of water, watch this video. 


Drought lasting too long

California is not new to droughts. The state has gone through several periods of drought in recent decades, said Thomas Harter, faculty in the department of land, air and water resources at the University of California-Davis.

But this drought has been longer than most, and the state has taken to using groundwater resources, which are harder to replenish.

Groundwater reservoirs are one of three basic natural storage places for California water. The others include surface reservoirs and snowpack that builds in winter months and drizzles down during spring and summer.

The snowy season has ended and left the state with only 6 percent of its annual snowpack leading to state-mandated water restrictions designed to cut water usage by 25 percent. Farmers are exempt from the restrictions. 

Though this was a tough time to have a small snowfall, the snowpack and surface reservoirs can bounce back with one good season, Harter said. He said snowpack recovered well in 2011 after a drought from 2007-09.

“We had a huge snowpack,” he said. “I was skiing at the end of June. There were 8 feet of snow at 7,500 feet of elevation.

“The (surface) reservoirs were full to the brim by the end of 2011.”

Though vast in comparison to the state’s surface reservoirs, the groundwater reservoirs take a much longer recovery period. And those groundwater reservoirs are getting sucked up, Harter said.

The typical year usually involves about 32 million acre feet of water going to farmers and another 8 million acre feet of water for urban areas. But while the typical year involves 12-to-15 million acre feet coming from groundwater, Harter said the number has jumped to 20-to-25 million acre feet the last few years using conservative estimates.

And the new number is not abating.

“We have a significant amount of groundwater left in the state,” Harter said. But he added, “we’ll have additional thousands of wells dry out this year because of this additional drought.”

Drilling new wells is expensive, Howitt said. A new well could cost $250,000 and the wait could be months.

“We’re going to have some wells going dry in some places because in some places the groundwater was drawn down 30-40 foot this last year,” Howitt said. “Secondly, in a lot of places, there was some ability to condition with some good water management and reserve stocks. Those are all gone.”

Howitt said farmers must think differently about water for both the short-term and long-term.

“The take home message for farmers is treat your water the way you’d treat your retirement account,” he said. “You have to have a portfolio of different crops, some of which are able to be flexible and some which have higher yields and are not flexible.”