There might be some rain coming soon, but it might still not be enough to quench the drought in California. Apparently, this past year has been the driest in the past half millennium for the state. Currently, the federal government says that “every square mile of California is in some state of drought—and 14.62% of the state, concentrated in central California’s agricultural heartland, is in the most extreme state of exceptional drought.” In some parts of the state, there has barely been any rainfall over the last months – since July 1st, for example, only 35% of the usual precipitation has reached San Francisco.
What consequences does that have for US agriculture? Well, look at the map that Mother Jones has provided for a first impression:
The additional problem is that many of these crops are extremely water-intensive, with one head of broccoli requiring as much as 5.4 gallons of water and a head of lettuce coming it at an impressive 3.5 gallons. Thus, agriculture consumes around 80% of the water used in California.
Overall, California produces around 50% of the US’ fruits and vegetables, along with a significant amount of dairy and wine. The state is also the US-wide frontrunner in cash farm receipts, with more than 350 commodities representing $44.7 billion, or 11% of the U.S. total, in 2012.
Thus, farmers are of course majorly concerned at the consequences of the water shortage, some of which are already clearly visible:
- The US Bureau of Reclamation ruled that California’s Central Valley – a third of the state’s agricultural land – won’t have access to any irrigation water. Statewide, around 8 million farms depend on federal or state irrigation water for their crops. Without it, they will have to make painful choices, such as buying water from other farmers or limiting the acres they are planting on. Farmers might leave 500,000 acres fallow this year as a result (12% of last year’s principal crops), which again will have negative consequences for erosion and soil quality.
- The shortages this year – and of the past years – can have multi-year effects, especially on permanent tree crops like almonds or clementines. Once you have planted trees, you need to keep them alive throughout the years, or face losses that just can’t be recouped in the next growing seasons because you can’t just “skip” a harvest and start fresh next year like with one-year crops. Some farmers are planning to cut down some trees to save the rest, but all these decisions are really hard to make.
- The livestock sector is also massively affected because of a severe shortage of grazing land, leading the Obama administration to promise $100 million in livestock-disaster aid available within 60 days.
- Bloomberg refers to past experiences: “In 2009, a prolonged drought caused $340 million in revenue losses in the San Joaquin Valley, the center of the state’s agricultural production, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, citing University of California data. About 285,000 acres were left fallow in the valley and 9,800 jobs were lost, he said. “There’s the potential for higher economic impacts this time around based on an increase in permanent crop acreage and the water situation,” Lyle said by telephone from Sacramento. “We know what happened the last time we were in a drought-type situation. We think in 2014 it could be worse.”“
- The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that the drought could cost the state $2.8 billion in job income and $11 billion in annual state revenue.
So, will there be a massive food shortage as a result? This conclusion might be overstated, but it is likely that agriculture will take a hit this year, according to UC-Merced’s Roger Bales.
“There will be, in agriculture, fewer plantings, fewer harvests, and revenue of seasonal crops. There could be more expensive pumping of groundwater. And there could be just lower yields if they have less water to apply.”
The most likely consequence for consumers is that food prices will be rising, especially of those crops that are most affected. According to MarketWatch, “retail prices for tomatoes rose 10% in the 12 months through Jan. 31, and U.S. retail prices for beef, bacon, lettuce and broccoli have also risen at least 10% last year, even as total food inflation inched up just 1.4%, Bloomberg reported, citing government data.“
For more detailed information, I would refer you to this Bloomberg article, which divvies up consequences crop by crop, and this Mother Jones FAQ article, which gives tons of important and interesting background information.
Did you realize how bad the situation was? I didn’t until my friend posted the above map on Facebook. I’m crossing my fingers for rain!