Drought in California increases costs for farmers

Beginning Jan. 14, California has been in a drought emergency. Since then, Gov. Jerry Brown has encouraged all citizens to cut back at least 20 percent of their water use.

Moreover, since the agricultural industry in California alone produces over 50 percent of the nation’s vegetables and fruits, along with dairy and wine, the consumer market will be drastically affected.

Ken Shackel, a tree crop expert in the Department of Plant Science at UC Davis, studied many non-irrigated almond trees in dry soil for approximately a year starting in 2009. The trees did not die, but their yield was around 50 percent. The next year was around 10 percent.

“However bad this year, it will be worse next especially for the farmers today. Really bad this year means really, really bad next year,” Shackel said. “The most vulnerable crops are probably stone fruits like plums, cherries, peaches and apricots, which are adapted to wetter climates.”

The government has already taken action to tackle this issue. They have asked citizens to conserve water and use it more efficiently.

“What is needed is to pass a law that requires that every user of groundwater have a meter and report their water consumption to the SWRCB (State Water Resources Control Board)”, said Samuel Sandoval, an assistant professor and UC Cooperative Extension specialist and expert in water resources planning and management, in an email.

Sandoval added, as of now, this is not mandatory.

“The government (water agencies), practitioners and scientist are always guessing how much water farmers are using from groundwater. This change in law can help have a better understanding and as a [consequence] to better conserve groundwater,” Sandoval said.

Agriculture represents two to three percent of the state economy. While the economy will do relatively well during drought, the sector that will be more affected is agriculture.

In some places like the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley, a large part of the population relies on agriculture. Unfortunately, low-income communities are more vulnerable and are more likely to be affected.

Low water allocation will reduce food production in California and increase costs of producing that food. Low water availability will mean low flows and reduced recreational opportunities in the state’s reservoirs.

Terrestrial biodiversity is negatively affected by drought, but California is an environment that is adapted to periodic drought. There are reduced wildflowers, and this is hard on pollinators, for example, but for the most part our native species have been through this before and will go through it again. There are undoubtedly cases where the interaction with human landscapes makes this impact particularly severe.

“We worry about how the demand for water is driving increased groundwater use. Increased groundwater use results in decreased water tables,” said Mark Schwartz, director of the John Muir Institute for the Environment at UC Davis, a plant ecologist and a professor of environmental science and policy.

“Decreased water tables change streamflow patterns in some cases. This has already resulted in a number of the conversion of annually running streams to seasonally running streams. Obviously, a seasonal stream is not a good place for fish and other aquatic organisms,” Schwartz said.

This is one of the driest years, but perhaps more significantly, California has witnessed a strong shift from annual plants like tomatoes to perennial crops like almonds over the past two decades.

Whereas formerly a tomato grower could forego planting in a dry year, no irrigation water means that an almond grower could lose their trees. Hence the impact of this drought is likely unprecedented in its economic scale.

“There are several communities that are close due to limited supplies to increased costs to purchase water at a municipal level, to increased draw-down from the aquifer which can lead to subsidence and costly infrastructure repairs,” said Andrew Fulks, assistant director of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. “If the families live in rural areas and have wells, there is always the possibility of the wells going dry. In Yolo County, we have pretty healthy groundwater supplies, so this will only be an issue with a sustained multi-year drought.”

ROHIT TIGGA can be reached at city@theaggie.org.