In the most comprehensive look yet at the impact of the worst California drought in decades on the state's vital agriculture industry, a new study found that it has cost the state $2.2 billion, primarily in lost farm revenue and wages. And it says 428,000 acres of irrigated cropland, about 5 percent of the state's total, is being pushed out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California.
The drought also has put more than 17,100 seasonal and part-time agricultural workers out of jobs, according to the study released Tuesday by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, leading to pockets of extreme poverty and despair in the produce baskets of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will visit Fresno on Friday to announce additional funds to help rural communities struggling amid the drought.
The report found that California is managing the drought, the state's third worst on record, by heavily relying on the additional pumping of underground water, known as groundwater. But groundwater reserves are limited, and water tables will fall if the drought continues, as expected, through 2015. Some parts of the state, such as the Tulare Basin, could see additional wells run dry. In areas with deeper wells, growers still have access to groundwater but will likely pay more in energy costs to pump the water to the surface.
Failure to manage groundwater and plan for future dry years is a "slow-moving train wreck," said Richard Howitt, a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis and a lead author of the study.
"California's economy runs on energy, information and water, and we need to get by with one-third less water than normal," said Howitt. "We're acting like the super rich who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook."
The report, released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., found that the drought is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture. River water for Central Valley farms has been reduced by roughly one-third.
"We don't know when the drought will end," said Jay Lund, a co-author of the study and director of the university's Center for Watershed Sciences, adding that droughts are inevitable in a dry state like California. "We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts."
Besides being the nation's leading wine and dairy state, California produces 80 percent of the world's almonds and is a major producer of strawberries, walnuts, celery, leaf lettuce, spinach and cattle. The $45 billion agriculture sector includes 2.6 million acres of permanent tree and vine crops like almonds, walnuts, grapes and pomegranates, which allow farmers less flexibility in tough times because they cannot be replaced as quickly as crops planted annually, such as corn or soybeans. But permanent crops have become extremely valuable due to global demand.
"A lot of our farmers are moving to high value crops," said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which largely funded the UC Davis study. "We're seeing farmers give up annual crops to save their permanent crops."
To measure the economic effects of the drought, the UC Davis researchers used computer models, remote satellite sensing data from NASA and the latest estimates of State Water Project, federal Central Valley Project and local water deliveries and groundwater pumping capacities.
While the drought is severely impacting many California farmers and farm workers, the report said consumer food prices will be largely unaffected. It said higher prices at the grocery store of high-value California crops like nuts, wine grapes and dairy foods are driven more by market demand than by the drought.
But some farmers are pulling up once-lucrative nut trees that took years to grow. Jim Jasper of Stewart & Jasper orchards in Stanislaus County farms 2,000 acres of mostly almonds and walnuts. He relies on water from the federal Central Valley Project, and his allocation has been cut to zero this year.
"We've pulled up 200 acres (of trees) with anticipation of water being short," Jasper said. "And we're in the process of drying up another 160 acres, which we'll pull up after harvest. This is the first time we have pulled orchards without putting them back. We are not replanting until we can figure out if there is a reliable source of water."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.