California drought idles huge swaths of farmland

Associated PressJuly 15, 2014 

— Hundreds of thousands of acres of rich California farmland has gone unplanted this year because of drought, and researchers said Tuesday that next year could be even worse, with some farmers possibly losing their last source of water as wells run dry.

The University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences released a study finding that farmers struggling with drought left nearly 430,000 acres unplanted this year, costing the California economy $2.2 billion and 17,000 jobs.

Researchers say chances are high for yet another dry year in 2015, which would force farmers to rely even more heavily on groundwater for irrigation.

"It's tougher than we thought," Richard Howitt, a University of California, Davis professor emeritus of agriculture and resource economics.

The study used computer modeling, NASA satellite data and estimates provided by state and federal water agencies to examine the impact on California under continued dry conditions. The research was presented at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

California, which leads the nation in production of more than a dozen crops with a $44.7 billion agriculture industry, is now in its third dry year. The drought has hit the Central Valley the hardest.

The drought has not driven up food prices because crops such as corn and grain can be grown in other areas of the country, and farmers in California can use their more expensive water on specialty crops such as almonds that already fetch a high price from consumers, Howitt said.

To nourish those crops, farmers have been pumping more groundwater as the mountain snowpack sends less water to state reservoirs and canals. Howitt urged farmers to take the lead in managing their scarce groundwater.

The groundwater is not being replenished, and Howitt said continuing pumping will cause up to 10 percent of wells in the southern Central Valley to dry up.

"My message to farmers is treat groundwater like you treat your retirement account," Howitt said in an interview. "Know how much water's in it and how fast it's being used."

California is the only western state that doesn't measure groundwater use, and Howitt said demanding more of wells is a short-term solution with long-term costs.

"It's very simple economics, but it's such an emotional topic," said Howitt. "Farmers have to sit down and ask themselves... do they want their children and grandchildren to be farming?"

The California Department of Food and Agriculture requested the research.

Karen Ross, the department's secretary, said she recognizes the critical state of California's groundwater and the need for local officials to manage it. If that does not happen, Ross said the state will intervene.

Millions of Californians depend on ground supplies for drinking water, she said, adding that farmers have a large role to play.

"It's not if there will be future droughts," Ross said in an interview. "There will be future droughts, and we need to take our lessons and prepare ourselves as much as possible."

Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, said he doesn't anticipate a rainy El Niño next year to rescue California. As a result, the state needs to implement a variety of measures, such as conservation and managing groundwater and reservoirs, he said.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, said losses attributed to the drought could have been avoided if state leaders had added more reservoirs rather than focusing on conservation for decades.

He also said the Farm Bureau has long supported groundwater management at a local level.

"Statewide regulation certainly won't fix our groundwater needs, just as it has failed to provide solutions to surface water needs," he said.

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