Drought cost California’s agricultural sector $1.2 billion and 8,750 full- and part-time jobs last year, according to a new report prepared for the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. It is the latest evidence that climate change is upending the country’s most productive agricultural region.
“This has been a fast-paced drought, and it shows how climate change increases the challenges we face in managing water in California,” said Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and a co-author of the report. “Sadly, we are going to see more and more droughts like this, so we need better tools to anticipate and minimize the socio-economic impacts.”
The report was produced by a team of researchers at UC Merced in collaboration with experts from UC Davis and the PPIC. They released their findings only days after many California farmers discovered they would not be getting a reprieve from drought conditions this year, either; on Feb. 23, the federal government announced that it will not release any water to Central Valley farmers in 2022. Two thirds of California is engulfed in “severe drought,” and the state just weathered its driest February on record.
Researchers focused on several regions where drought conditions have been particularly severe, including the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and the Russian River Basin, which is home to California’s wine country. Their analysis found that farmers fallowed an additional 395,000 acres of cropland because of last year’s water shortages. A whopping 385,000 of those acres are located in the Central Valley. Rice, cotton, grain, and field crops were among the commodities most affected.
Last year was one of the driest in California’s recorded history, and many farmers’ water usage was also constrained by new conservation policies. When the drought began, the state had just started to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which regulates groundwater pumping. The law has not stopped some farmers from continuing to deplete groundwater, and some water experts are unsure that it’s working. But the UC Merced report suggests that SGMA has effectively regulated pumping in some areas, particularly in parts of the Central Valley. According to water experts at the PPIC, farmers will have to fallow at least 500,000 acres of farmland by 2040 to achieve the state’s groundwater sustainability goals.