Despite Historic Drought, California Farmers Are Enjoying Record Revenue. How Is That Possible?

California is an agricultural powerhouse, supplying the majority of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. California also happens to be in the midst of the fourth year of a historic drought — the most severe in recorded history — which is a problem for all that agricultural production, because growing crops — or raising livestock, or tending to nurseries — requires water, and large-scale agriculture, like the kind in California, requires a lot of water. [Groundwater] is really helping us today, but it’s shifting the cost and the burden to others Numerous models predicted that California’s agricultural sector would be hit hard by the drought. But emerging data shows that California’s farmers have been more resilient than expected — according to the first comprehensive analysis of the actual impacts of the drought published Wednesday by the Pacific Institute, California’s agricultural sector experienced record sales in 2013 and 2014. That economic boom comes at a cost to the environment, however, as farmers drill deeper into the ground to tap groundwater, raising questions about who will eventually bear the costs of depleted groundwater resources and damaged infrastructure. “We think that looking at drought impacts can provide important learning opportunities,” Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute’s Water Program, told ThinkProgress. “It can help us prepare for time when water is constrained, and we think it’s important to better understand what the actual impacts are.” To understand the actual impacts, researchers at the Pacific Institute — a California-based nonpartisan research institute — looked at emerging data from the USDA and the National Agricultural Statistics Survey (NASS), as well as employment data from the Employment Development Department. Because the study relied on whatever data was publicly available at the time, it focused only on crop revenue — not livestock, dairy, nurseries, or greenhouses — and analyzed that data on a state-wide scale, not at the county level. Cooley admits that those restrictions limit the completeness of the picture — especially in counties that have seen a lot of farmers letting their fields go fallow, which can significantly impact availability of farm worker jobs in those areas. A recent study from UC Davis found that more than 21,000 people have lost jobs due to the drought, and the majority of those job losses come from the agricultural sector. Still, Cooley said that analyzing statewide data still provides an important large-scale look at how California’s agricultural sector is faring through years of water scarcity. “This is really the first assessment to look at the actual data on the impacts,” she said. “This is a piece of the puzzle. It’s an important piece, an estimated $33 billion part of the agricultural economy.” CREDIT: Pacific Institute According to USDA and NASS data, 2014 was the year with the lowest harvested acreage for field crops in California over the past 15 years. But despite losing acreage, California farmers, on a statewide level, haven’t been losing money — both 2013 and 2014 were record years for revenue, with 2013 reaching a record high of $34 billion. There are a few reasons for the surge in revenue despite a drop in available surface water and crop acreage. The first is that for the past decade or so, California farmers have increasingly been making the switch from low-value crops — like alfalfa, cotton, and rice — to high-value crops, like almonds. Although the almond has been the source of much environmental rancor — an illustration of California agriculture’s water lust, according to some — it’s actually a pretty smart crop for farmers to grow, in part because it’s worth so much more than the water that goes into it. The same cannot be said for alfalfa, much of which is grown for livestock and dairy feed or shipped overseas. Farmers have also been adopting better efficiency measures when it comes to water use, like switching from flood irrigation to drip irrigation. According to Cooley, in 2010 — the most recent year for which there is data — drip irrigation was just beginning to overtake flood irrigation across the state. Today, she wagers, most farmers are probably using drip irrigation. Switching to drip irrigation can help farmers use more precise amounts of water for their crops, as opposed to simply flooding the field, which both demands more water upfront and comes with greater risk of agricultural runoff. But switching from flood to drip isn’t necessarily a panacea. For starters, flood irrigation requires more water initially, but also allows unused water to flow back into rivers and streams and recharge underground aquifers. And, when farmers switch to drip irrigation, they actually might end up using more water than farmers that use flood irrigation, simply because drip irrigation is so much more efficient — so efficient that it boosts yields, allowing farmers to grow more crops, requiring farmers to use more water. The San Joaquin Valley is sinking faster than ever before — 13 inches in just eight months Another big reason California farmers have been able to weather the drought so successfully? Even though surface water — the kind of water pumped in from reservoirs and rivers — has been scarce, many have been able to make up for shortages by pumping groundwater — natural underground aquifers that fill with rainwater over centuries and millenia. Right now, California doesn’t actively regulate the use of groundwater; though the state recently passed a bill to regulate the extraction of groundwater, its effects won’t be felt until 2040. In an average year, the state gets about 30 to 40 percent of its water supply from groundwater. In 2014, according to a UC Davis report, farmers replaced some 75 percent of their surface water resources with groundwater. “To some degree, it’s okay to rely on groundwater during a drought, that’s one of its major advantages,” Cooley said. “The problem is we are pumping very heavily we are massively over-drafting groundwater in parts of the state.” Groundwater overdraft can lead to a number of problems, Cooley said, because it prioritizes the short-term over the long-term. The aquifers that California is tapping into in order to bolster its water supply took thousands of years to fill — and as surface aquifers have become depleted by years of drought and groundwater pumping, farmers and water districts are drilling deeper and deeper in order to reach water. That has compromised the integrity of California’s land. Last week, NASA released a study showing that the San Joaquin Valley is sinking faster than ever before — 13 inches in just eight months. That rapid sinking can cause roads to buckle or bridges to crack. And as pumping groundwater dries and damages the soil, those aquifers may never be able to hold as much water as they once did. “This is really helping us today, but it’s shifting the cost and the burden to others,” Cooley said. “There are disadvantages communities in the Central Valley whose wells are going dry. There are going to need to be investments made in order to repair this infrastructure, and while better groundwater management is on the horizon, it’s not for another 25 years.” Cooley said that while she was surprised to see how well farmers had done, considering how dire the water situation in the state has been, it’s important to think about maintaining healthy groundwater supplies now, so that those resources aren’t completely gone by the time another drought rolls around. “Thinking about the future of California water, the climate models suggest it’s going to be more variable — we’re going to have some wetter years and some drier years, but they all agree it’s going to be warmer,” Cooley said. “We need to be working more quickly to improve groundwater management in California, because we will undoubtedly have another drought in [the next] 25 years.” Tags AgricultureCaliforniaClimate ChangeDrought The post Despite Historic Drought, California Farmers Are Enjoying Record Revenue. How Is That Possible? appeared first on ThinkProgress.


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