How the California Drought Will Affect All of Us

Posted by on Nov 18, 2014

California's Folsom Lake shown in July 2011 and January 2014. The reservoir now stands at just 29% of capacity. Photos: California Department of Water Resources.

California’s Folsom Lake shown in July 2011 and January 2014. The reservoir now stands at just 29% of capacity. Photos: California Department of Water Resources.

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.

Current conditions of California reservoirs. On average, the state's major reservoirs are at 27% of their capacity. Source: California Dept. of Water Resources.

Current conditions of California reservoirs. On average, the state’s major reservoirs are at 27% of their capacity. Source: California Dept. of Water 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.

A graph showing the drop in hydropower production over the past three years. Source: U.S. Dept. of Energy - Energy Information Administration.

A graph showing the drop in hydropower production over the past three years. Source: U.S. Dept. of Energy – Energy Information Administration.

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.

The six-acre Kingsbury Farm in Warren, Vermont, which produces over 100,000 pounds of food for the Vermont Food Bank, local restaurants, and sale at a farmstand. Photo: Alex Wilson

The six-acre Kingsbury Farm in Warren, Vermont, which produces over 100,000 pounds of food for the Vermont Food Bank, local restaurants, and retail sale at the farmstand. Photo: Alex Wilson

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?

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

2 Comments

  1. In California we are working several angles in hope of long term resiliency. The environmental movement also puts up barriers to many renewable projects and large water projects – so we have our own internal challenges for political solutions.

    Key projects:
    Direct to Potable Re-use – see Water Research Institute – several municipalities working to recycle waste water back to potable
    Grey water reuse – while small, there is potential for large scale ag use of recycled waste water. Research needed on quality of crops, organic requirements etc.
    Drip irrigation (aka Israel) – CA may have developed drip irrigation for large scale ag but we have fallen behind on large scale implementation like in Israel. We could save huge amounts of water by more efficient irrigation.

    We at Sangha Energy.org are working on pico scale grey to potable reuse – the goal being to take shower water and make it shower water again and again and again and again….you get the point. Our work won’t help the massive ag water problem but it will make homes far more sustainable. We seek collaborators, if you are a water scientist, experimenter, hobbyist or want to help experiment with household scale grey to potable reuse please email us.

  2. Almond farmers in the Central Valley aren’t fallowing their fields yet- they are planting more trees and digging deeper- AG ‘super’ wells of 1,500 to 2,000 feet deep and using groundwater in place of the state supplied canal or reservoir water. Fresno State crop experts estimate mature, producing almond trees require 1.5 million gallons per acre, per year. Shallow residential wells of 200 to 300 feet are dry in many local areas. Residents are walking away from their homes because they can’t afford $15,000 to $20,000 for a new 500 foot well. 1/20/2015

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