Vermont had a great growing season this year. We had remarkably consistent rainfall early in the season—about an inch per week, yet plenty of sunshine throughout the spring and summer to provide excellent production, especially for crops that prefer cooler weather. Even farmers who are set up with irrigation systems didn’t use that irrigation for most of the growing season—probably not until August.
Contrast this to California. The state is three years into one of the worst droughts in state’s history. While Northern California has received some rain in the past month, it hasn’t been enough to significantly improve reservoir levels, which are at record lows. The state’s largest reservoir, Shasta, sits at just 23% of capacity, Trinity Lake 23%, Lake Oroville 26%, Don Pedro Reservoir 37%, New Melones Reservoir 21%, San Luis Reservoir 21%, and Pine Flat Reservoir 12%.
Note that these reservoirs are almost never at 100% of capacity; Shasta, for example, is currently at 39% of its historical average capacity, and most others are at 30% to 60% of their historical averages. You can see the real-time capacities of California reservoirs at the California Data Exchange Center of the Department of Water Resources.
The water problems California is facing are partly due to the fact that the Sierras had just 32% of the usual snowpack last winter. Central Valley depends largely on reservoirs fed by Sierra water.
For Californians, this means that they’re having to buy more out-of-state power (because there’s less hydropower being produced), there’s less water for agriculture so thousands of farmers have fallowed their fields or even cut down almond and pistachio trees, and the state has instituted emergency water conservation standards statewide.
Governor Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January, 2014, but that hasn’t made all that much difference. Some communities have instituted tiered pricing for water—an excellent idea—but very few. The state is struggling with what to do about it, as becomes clear if one spends some time on the state’s drought website. The Pacific Institute also maintains an excellent California Drought website with links to many relevant resources.
Okay, so this means that if I live in California I can’t wash my car and my electric bills might start going up, but what about those of us that don’t live in California? Is the California drought affecting us?
The California Drought is a National Drought
Yes, we are being affected—and we could be affected a whole lot more. California produces nearly half of America’s vegetables, fruits, and nuts, including such crops as lettuce, tomatoes, walnuts, almonds. It’s also our largest producer of dairy, rice, and lots more. When production of these crops falls, our prices go up and certain crops become less available.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland were taken out of production this year for lack of water for irrigation. The impact varies by crop. A recent forecast projected that the state’s rice crop will be cut 25% this year. The dairy industry, which produces 21% of U.S. milk, planted 500,000 fewer acres to feed crops this year, and that’s driving up operating costs dramatically.
So, we’ll be paying more for food. Most of us won’t suffer that much, because food is such a small percentage of our monthly expenses—only about 6%, the lowest of any country. The financial impact on the lowest-income Americans will be much greater, however.
Like other commodities, prices of agricultural crops are based on supply and demand. Often, fairly small perturbations in supply have huge impacts on price and availability. If the drought extends another year or two, the impact could increase significantly.
Resilience of our agricultural system
Diversity is a key tenet of resilience. This is true with ecological systems, and it’s true with food, water, and other resources that we depend on. The most important thing we can do to strengthen the resilience of our food systems is to diversity agricultural production.
In places like Vermont that aren’t water-stressed, we should ramp up our food production—reducing our dependence on food from far away. We should strengthen local distribution channels so that more local food gets into institutions, including schools and hospitals, and our grocery chains should be convinced to carry more local produce. This is what food security is all about.
This is an important enough need that society should be subsidizing agriculture enterprises today even if they can’t compete on a dollar-per-pound basis with production in California’s produce belt of the Midwest’s grain belt. Subsidy can take the form of property tax exemptions for agriculture land, public funding of agricultural research, and municipal incentives for farm-to-plate programs that are working to get local food into our institutions.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on food security. How important is this to us as a society? What else can we be doing to improve our food security nationwide?