A historic drought has gripped California for the last four years, causing the state to take emergency measures, including requiring cities and their water users to slash consumption by 25 percent. A lack of rainfall and snow in the mountains contributed to making this one of the driest years on record. Farmers on the east and west side of the central San Joaquin Valley, the heart of the state’s food production, had little to no surface water, forcing growers to leave thousands of acres empty and many workers without jobs. Reservoirs remain well below normal as concern grows about the overpumping of groundwater.
SPECIAL REPORT: FROM DROUGHT TO EL NIÑO
Impact on the economy
As supplier of nearly half the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, Valley agriculture was hit hard by the drought. Farmers lost an estimated $1.84 billion in revenue and 10,100 seasonal jobs this year. Farmers lost money from idling farmland, removing trees with no access to water, selling livestock below their maximum profit potential, and paying for additional groundwater pumping. Losses to the state’s economy overall are estimated at $2.74 billion and nearly 21,000 jobs, according to a University of California study.
Statewide, 542,000 acres that would have been planted remained fallow. In the Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the San Joaquin Valley, more than 200,000 acres were idled. Among the crops shrinking in acreage was lettuce. A majority of Fresno County’s head lettuce is grown in the Huron area, and acreage in that region declined 38 percent in 2014. In the past five years, lettuce acreage has dropped by nearly 10,000 acres in the district, down to 6,757.
Surviving the drought
Farmers had to make tough decisions about how to keep their trees and plants alive. Some farmers purchased water at record-high prices, while others spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new wells. In the most extreme cases, farmers removed citrus or almond trees to save water. Growers also turned to water-saving technology, including the use of soil-moisture sensors and drip irrigation. Scientists, along with farmers and industry groups, are researching how to recharge aquifers using farmland. Growers have also taken a deeper look at drought-tolerant crops, including olive trees for olive oil production.
Climatologists have said El Niño has positioned itself in the Pacific and there is a 95 percent chance of it remaining through the winter. Still, it will take more than one rainy season to catch up with the deficit created by four dry years. Farming advocates are also pushing state and federal legislators to build the Temperance Flat dam above Friant on the San Joaquin River for increased water storage. The project would be partially paid for by the $7.5 billion water bond also known as Proposition 1 that voters approved last year. Farmers will also face regulations on groundwater usage for the first time in history. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 is designed to provide a framework for long-term sustainable groundwater management throughout the state. The act is expected to be implemented between 2020 and 2022.