Agriculture

Fresno State study says drought causes $3.3 billion in farm losses

Cha Lee Xiong farms on 20 acres he owns near Sanger. His well went dry, so he has let most of his land go fallow. He borrows water from his neighbor’s well to plant vegetables on eight acres but is limited to watering at certain times, so his yield is less that half. Xiong is part of The Bee’s exclusive photo gallery, “Faces of the Drought,” at www.fresnobee.com/water
Cha Lee Xiong farms on 20 acres he owns near Sanger. His well went dry, so he has let most of his land go fallow. He borrows water from his neighbor’s well to plant vegetables on eight acres but is limited to watering at certain times, so his yield is less that half. Xiong is part of The Bee’s exclusive photo gallery, “Faces of the Drought,” at www.fresnobee.com/water ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The state’s historic drought has hit the San Joaquin Valley hard, with farm losses in the billions, an increase in health issues and a decline in income, according to a Fresno State study released Thursday.

The report, funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation, was the work of faculty with expertise in water, economics, public health and engineering.

Fresno State faculty and administrators unveiled the report amid a backdrop of dry and dusty fields on the campus farm.

Provost Lynnette Zelezny, who directed the study, said the goal was to produce data showing how the drought is affecting the San Joaquin Valley, but also to use the information to help develop solutions to California’s water dilemma.

“We have created a repository of information,” Zelezny said. “And we will play a leadership role in engaging public policymakers in this issue.”

Among the recommendations are the development of a water budget for all users; creating consensus on California’s water future; and educating the public to recognize the true value of water.

Gillisann Harootunian, the director of University Initiatives and editor of the study, said a change in attitude about water and its value is desperately needed.

“If oil were gushing out of our faucets, we would be diving to catch every drop,” Harootunian said. “But with the recent drop in the price of oil, it is cheaper than water, yet we let it (water) gush out of our faucets without a thought.”

Harootunian said that when she visited Israel she noticed that people have adapted to living with limited water supplies. As an example, she noticed that people turn off the faucet when they are brushing their teeth.

“What are we waiting for?” Harootunian asked.

The report found that those who consider themselves moderate water users actually consume as much or more water than those who ranked themselves as heavy water users.

Along with the magnifying the need for public education, the report’s authors said the drought has taken a significant toll on agriculture. With little to no surface water for Valley agriculture, many farmers are relying on groundwater pumping, creating an increase in energy consumption. Researchers estimate losses in farm revenue to be as much as $3.3 billion in the Valley.

Harootunian said protecting the state’s groundwater supplies should also be a priority.

“It is our savings account and it’s a finite resource,” she said. “We shouldn’t be drawing everything out of the savings account – we should be keeping it and replenishing it. I hope that people will come to see the value of water.”

Also affected by the drought is the health of the community and the incomes of the Valley’s thousands of farmworkers.

Researchers said the drought can contribute to a rise in illnesses including Valley fever, West Nile virus and diarrheal diseases. Researchers said changes in air and water quality have a tendency to contribute to adverse public health.

The Valley’s farmworkers have also experienced an erosion in wages. Antonio Avalos, associate professor of economics, said that while the overall unemployment rate is declining, so is the median household income in some Valley counties. For example, in Madera County the household median income fell from $42,039 in 2012 to $39,758 in 2013. It also dropped in Tulare County, from $40,302 in 2012 to $39,422 in 2013.

“What we see is that people are working fewer days, less hours, and they are bringing home less money,” Avalos said. “They may still have a job, but they aren’t making as much as they were before the drought.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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