In Depth: California’s Drought

By guest contributor Malee Oot
What happens when America’s produce hub dries out? In the midst of the worst year of a three-year drought, Californians, and the rest of America, are beginning to find out.
Contra Costa resident Patrick Hakes returned to California a few months ago after being out of state on vacation and was noticeably startled when he headed to his local Whole Foods to grocery shop. “The produce section at Whole Foods had shrunk by a fifth. And ONE artichoke was four bucks.”
A longtime northern California resident and primarily a vegetarian, Patrick has a number of concerns about the drought, including for regional wine, “I know a number of vintners in Napa County. While putting on a brave face, they know that this drought could be crippling to their output and revenue for the 2014 harvest. Our Mediterranean climate means that all rains fall roughly from November to April or May. After that, there is none. If reservoirs don’t fill up, the irrigation needed for summer will be hard to come by and very expensive. The overall climatic changes also throw the vines themselves into confusion. The warmer temperatures and lack of rain can induce the bud-break on the vines prematurely. The next round of below-freezing temperatures then kill that growth. Bad news all around.”
California’s $44.7 billion agriculture industry is the primary consumer of water in the state—using nearly 80% of the state’s developed water supply, and the first sector to feel the impact of excessively dry conditions.i As the drought drags on, the economic toll could be substantial for California, potentially costing $2.8 billion in job income and as much as $11 billion in annual revenue according to data from the California Farm Water Coalition.ii
The region most effected by the drought has undoubtedly been the Central Valley, a 450-mile tract stretching from Bakersfield to Reading, wedged between the Coast Range and the Sierras. It boasts some of the most fertile soil and best growing conditions on earth.iii The Central Valley is essentially America’s grocery basket, responsible for cultivating nearly a third of all produce grown in the United States. And unlike the Midwest, which invests narrowly in producing corn and soybeans, in the Central Valley, more than 230 different crops are grown.iv
Fresno County, the agricultural hub of the Central Valley, grows more produce by volume than any other county in the United States, generating $7.7 billion of agricultural products in 2012. This year, as a result of the prolonged dry conditions, a quarter of the agricultural land in Fresno County will be left unplanted, nearly 250,000 acres, according to the Fresno County Farm Bureau.v
Part of the challenge in California is also the type of crops grown. A substantial part of the state’s agricultural sector is centered around tree and vine crops, like California’s world renowned grapes and nuts. Orchards where tree and vine crops are produced cannot be left fallow for a dry year, or two, or three, like agricultural fields can. In an orchard, even during a drought, the trees must be watered enough to be kept
Droughts are nothing new in California. In fact, droughts are a part of California’s natural climate. More than 50% of California’s annual precipitation falls during the winter months, between December and February, and much of the rest of the year is essentially dry and sunny.vii
But 2013 was extreme. A study of tree rings in the Sacramento River system by University of California (UC) Berkeley paleoclimatologist Lynn Ingram suggests that state has not been this dry in 500 years. And, even more troubling, is the reality that California may not see any relief from the drought any time soon.viii
Ingram discussed California’s climate and the impact on development in the state with the UC Berkeley Press saying, “If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century, like during the Medieval period or the middle Holocene. The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that. The late 1930s to the early 1950s were when a lot of our dams and aqueducts were built, and those were wetter decades. I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now.”ix
On a Valentine’s Day visit to the Central Valley, President Obama expressed a similar concern that increasingly dry conditions may become the norm in California, announcing $183 million in federal relief and saying, “This planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come… And everybody from farmers to industry to residential areas to the north of California and the south of California and everyplace in between, as well as the entire Western region, are going to have to start rethinking how we approach water for decades to come.”x
Officials in California are also beginning to reevaluate the state’s water infrastructure. The bulk of the state’s water resources are generated at high elevations in mountain catchments.xi Snowpack accumulated at high elevations provides a number of ecological services, and naturally regulates California’s water supply. During the rainy winter months, snowpack builds up in the Sierras, preventing flooding when precipitation is most intense. As temperatures increase in the spring, snow in the mountains melts and water is released gradually to refill the state’s reservoirs and supply agricultural systems during the typically dry California summers.xii
With the drought dragging on, snowpack has also reached an historical low. A winter snow survey conducted by the California Department of Water Resources at the end of January found water content in the state’s snowpack is about 12% of the average for this time of year.xiii California may have to adapt to a future in which high elevation snowpack is no longer an option for large-scale water storage. As temperatures continue to rise in the state, precipitation in California will also increasingly take the form of rain, with less and less falling as snow, making the state’s water supply increasingly unpredictable. Greater variability in California’s water supply will also mean the state’s water infrastructure will have to be expanded to include greater storage to accommodate these fluctuations in precipitation.xiv
There is growing concern among climatologists California’s three-year drought may actually be an indicator the state is moving into a prolonged dry period.xv
The exceptionally dry winter this year is in part related to climatic cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which mimics an extended La Niña phase, with ocean temperatures in the Eastern Pacific getting cooler, pushing the jet stream and any storms northward toward the Pacific Northwest.xvi
Paleoclimatologist Lynn Ingram explained to UC Berkeley Press, “When the climate’s warmer, it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we [California] don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We only get about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.”xvii
But this time the prolonged drought in California does not seem to correspond with cycles associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Ingram noted the distinction, telling the UC Berkley Press, “With Pacific Decadal Oscillation [the ever-changing temperature of surface water in the North Pacific Ocean], every 20 or 30 years we go in and out of these positive and negative shifts that affect precipitation and temperature. But now we’re entering a period where it looks like we’re getting drier even though it doesn’t necessarily correspond to that cycle. It looks like a trend. It’s warming and drying, and that’s definitely a big concern for Western states.” xviii
For many Californians, concerns about water use are nothing new. In Contra Costa, Patrick Hakes explains, “We don’t have a lawn, we have high efficiency appliances and new toilets. I think the only things we could do would be to be more mindful when we flush the toilet, and take less frequent showers.”
As the drought continues, the future of agriculture in the America’s most productive state continues to face multiple uncertainties. And California residents like Patrick continue to worry about what the next few months will bring, “Most folks are already thinking ahead to summer…Old timers are quick to bring up the bad drought years—mandatory rationing of household water, reuse of bath and laundry water for other purposes. The long-term impacts are really quite scary to think about.”


i Blaine Hanson, University of California-Davis ‘Irrigation of Agricultural Crops in California
ii California Farm Water Coalition “Learn More About 2014 Drought Impacts.”
iii OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook ‘California Drought and the U.S. Food Supply
iv New York Times. “Everyone Eats There
vi OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook. ‘California Drought and the U.S. Food Supply
ix ibid
xii OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook. ‘California Drought and the U.S. Food Supply
xiv OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook. ‘California Drought and the U.S. Food Supply
xv ibid
xvi ibid

xviii ibid
This was first published at Fairfax Climate Watch.
Malee is a freelance writer with a background in environmental management. She has lived in Kenya, Nepal, Thailand, and the United Kingdom and is currently based in Washington, DC.

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