By Kim Chipman | Bloomberg
California’s worst drought has left growers in the top US agricultural state facing $3 billion in losses, just as growers brace for more widespread water outages.
The state’s driest three-year period on record resulted in lost crop revenue after growers left a total of 1.3 million acres unplanted during 2021 and 2022 compared to 2019, according to a study commissioned by the Department of California Food and Agriculture. That’s the most idle acreage in recent memory, with cascading effects in the food industry.
The Central Valley, which produces about a quarter of all US food, including 40% of its fruits and nuts, is bearing the brunt of the losses thus far. Things could get even worse, as agricultural areas in the southern part of the state that depend on water from a dwindling Colorado River are likely to experience more fallow in 2023, said Josué Medellín-Azuara, a professor at the University of California Merced who led the analysis.
“Short-term strategic land dormancy was the most common cropping decision adaptation in this drought,” the researchers said in the report. “Some crops such as rice and other field and cereal crops showed great inactivity”, while meat and milk productions were “lower than they would have been”.
The estimated 752,000 acres of fallow fields in 2022 alone represent nearly 10% of California’s irrigated land examined by the researchers. Producers also faced additional energy costs due to the need to pump water. The study is based on “water” years from October to September.
California’s so-called senior water rights over other states have helped protect farmers who depend on the Colorado River from severe water shutoffs.
But with the basin providing water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles facing a mega-drought, the US government is tasking states with coming up with a plan to conserve water. Federal officials are also considering steps that would allow them to impose restrictions.
“There is pressure for the cuts,” Medellín-Azuara said in a telephone interview. The looming water restrictions for agriculture in southern California and Arizona are especially troubling because those regions grow lettuce and other vegetables that the rest of the country relies heavily on during the winter months.
At least 70% of irrigated land in the Colorado River Basin is used to grow livestock feed, and the drought is already driving up prices for such crops, according to the study.
The report’s findings were not all grim. Statewide economic impacts on farm income were “significantly softened” by measures such as increased groundwater pumping, crop switching, water trading, and insurance payments.
—Researchers estimate initial crop income losses of $1.3 billion in 2021 and $1.7 billion in 2022, with the Central Valley accounting for the largest proportion of that.
—The vine and vegetables were the main source of loss of income.
—Shortages of crops like tomatoes and rice hurt food processors.
—Surface water deliveries were reduced by nearly 43% in the Central Valley in 2021 and 2022.
—California collectively “lost over a year of rainfall” in the 2020-22 period.
—Temperatures were about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 Celsius) above 20th-century averages during 2020-22, contributing to reduced snowpack.