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Worst drought on record in 119 years leaves many Dairy farms no choice but to sell off their herd
July 17, 2014

Well drillers and irrigation companies have never seen demand so high.

Desperate and crazy is how they describe it.

“There is no water in the canals and everything is in the ground and people have to pump out of the ground and now we have to provide all these folks and it’s just going crazy,” Brandon, 34, an employee of Carver Pump in Tulare County, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, said.

“We’ve had some bad droughts, but everybody says it’s getting to the point where its probably going to be the worst it’s ever been,” he continued.

The only real winners in California’s record-breaking, 3-year-old drought are the well drillers and water pump suppliers as surface water has run dry and farmers drill deeper into water tables to save their crops.

The drought is considered the worst on record in 119 years and has put California on the front lines of climate change, scientists say.

Many ranchers and dairy farmers are selling off their cattle because grazing land is scorched and feed is too expensive. In the intense heat of the central valley, they have no water to quench their cattle’s thirst or cool them down.

“It is very hard,” Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said. She noted that it takes decades to build the genetics of a herd and all that can be lost in one critically dry season.

“It is a very emotional decision that those ranchers have had to make to reduce their herd size down and sometimes completely sell off their herds,” she continued.

Citrus and almond orchards are, in some areas, withering under the stress. Those trees would take years to replace.

“This year we have to get by with one-third less water in our regular supplies than normal,” Richard Howitt, an economist at UC Davis Center for watershed sciences, said.

The state has a surface water deficit of 6.6 million acre feet of water (one acre foot equals 1.25 million litres) compared to an average year, he said. This has forced farmers to pump an extra 5 million acre feet from groundwater wells, depleting that backup resource.

Howitt said that because California is the only western state that does not track groundwater flows, nobody knows the degree to which the resource is being depleted.

“We’re walking around signing cheques and not even balancing our chequebook because we still think we are in a groundwater rich era,” he said.

A new study by the University of California at Davis concludes that this year it will cost farmers $2.2 billion US in an industry that produces $42 billion annually.
Howitt, who is one of the authors of the study, said the drought has already cost 17,100 seasonal agricultural jobs.

“The real costs that are coming in are the loss of some of these permanent crops,” he said. “And so some citrus orchards and some almond orchards are just going to dry up and this is a loss not only of revenue for this year but for future years.”

Jay Lund, the director of watershed science at UC Davis, said he is “not sure when (the drought) is going to end.”

“In the paleo history of California, you have 200-year droughts,” he said. “So is next year going to be dry? Are we going to go for broke this year and empty all the reservoirs and hope next year will be wet?”

Nobody knows, he said. He said there is a 29 per cent chance the state will be critically dry next year and a 35 per cent chance it will just be dry.

California is a Mediterranean climate that requires massive irrigation for crops. Most of its water comes from mountain snow melt and river diversion. Because of climate change, snowfall either is below average or melts at the wrong time. Because California hasn’t built any reservoirs since the late 1970s, it can’t capture this out-of-season runoff or rainfall, Paul Wenger, California Farm Bureau Federation President, said.

“One of the saddest things about the losses caused by the drought is that they could have been prevented,” he said.

While everyone in California is feeling the pinch — in higher food and water costs, water conservation measures, increased utility bills and/or job losses — not all farmers are hurting.

Farms blessed with sufficient groundwater are doing well and getting higher prices for their crops. Those without a groundwater source or whose wells are depleted are in a desperate situation and have to sacrifice part or all of their crops. Most of these farms are in the western and southern parts of the Central Valley.

Future water demands will only expand. California’s population is predicted to exceed 44 million by 2030, from more than 38 million.

Ross foresees a different future for California agriculture. She said production likely will shrink as will the number of different crops. Farmers might have to abandon low-value crops such as feed grains and oil seed in favour of higher value orchard crops such as citrus and almonds.

Luckily, Howitt said, the world’s middle class is growing along with the demand for the kind of quality, salad bar foods produced in California.

Source: Postmedia


Summer 2018