More than 97 percent of California is experiencing “severe” drought conditions, raising the prospect of difficult agricultural decisions in a state that produces one-quarter of all food in the United States.
Farming is the primary driver of water consumption in the state, and the drought, now in its third year, comes as California faces increasing pressure to bear a greater share of the burden of Colorado River water cutbacks.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 97.52 percent of the nation’s most populous state is in “severe” drought as of Thursday, while 99.76 percent is in “moderate” drought. Last year at this time, 95.56 percent of the state was in “severe” drought. According to Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, much of the state’s drought has been concentrated in the north.
That’s important and a problem, he says, because Southern California gets a lot of its water from the Sacramento Valley.
According to the state Department of Food and Agriculture, California produces more than one-third of all U.S. vegetables and three-quarters of all domestic fruits and nuts, including $5.23 billion in grapes, $3.02 billion in strawberries, and $2.03 billion in lettuce in 2021.
Much of this agriculture is concentrated in the state’s Central Valley, which produces approximately 8% of the nation’s crop output, and the Salinas Valley, which produces approximately $1.36 billion in lettuce in 2019.
California is the senior-most state in the interstate agreement governing Colorado River allocations, which primarily benefit farming in the Imperial Valley in the Golden State. As a result, the state avoided any cuts in the Bureau of Reclamation’s new round of allocations announced in August, with the cuts focusing instead on Arizona and Nevada.
“Arizona is bearing the brunt of that because they are the Colorado’s junior water user.” However, it appears that all states in the Colorado River Basin will need to reduce their use of Colorado River water,” Holly Doremus, James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd professor of environmental regulation at Berkley Law School, told The Hill.
Separate talks are underway after basin states failed to meet an August deadline to agree on cuts to avoid “dead pool” status in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. As of this week, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District, which serve the Imperial Valley and Los Angeles, respectively, were still in negotiations.
Because of California’s size and seniority in water rights, the river’s overallocation hasn’t had a significant impact on the state yet, but “quite a few folks in other states are calling for California to make more of a sacrifice on the Colorado River,” Faith Kearns, an academic coordinator at the California Institute for Water Resources, told The Hill.
In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) earlier this week, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) called on California to increase its contribution to water preservation, noting that the state increased its use of river water by 41 percent between April 2021 and April 2022. “The necessary cuts cannot be borne solely by one or two states,” he wrote.
Aside from the river allocation, “there are certainly concerns about the long-term viability of agriculture in many parts of this state,” according to Jay Lund, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.
Since California’s previous drought, which lasted from 2011 to 2016, the state has considered ending groundwater overdraft, which occurs when an aquifer’s groundwater is used up faster than it is replenished.
California’s agriculture industry irrigates approximately 9.6 million acres per year with 34 million acre-feet of water, and water savings would most likely be achieved by paying farmers to plant fewer acres.
According to University of California Merced research, drought conditions cost California agriculture $1.1 billion last year, as nearly 395,000 acres were idled.