UC Davis Drought Study Assesses Current Losses and Potential Future Impacts

Source: CDFA

A new report from the University of California, Davis, shows that California agriculture is weathering its worst drought in decades due to groundwater reserves, but the nation’s produce basket may come up dry in the future if it continues to treat those reserves like an unlimited savings account.

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences study, released today at a press briefing in Washington, D.C., updates estimates on the drought’s effects on Central Valley farm production, presents new data on the state’s coastal and southern farm areas, and forecasts the drought’s economic fallout through 2016.

The study found that the drought — the third most severe on record — is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third. Groundwater pumping is expected to replace most river water losses, with some areas more than doubling their pumping rate over the previous year, the study said. More than 80 percent of this replacement pumping occurs in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin.

The results highlight California agriculture’s economic resilience and vulnerabilities to drought and underscore the state’s reliance on groundwater to cope with droughts. “California’s agricultural economy overall is doing remarkably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves,” said Jay Lund, a co-author of the study and director of the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences. “But we expect substantial local and regional economic and employment impacts. We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts.”

Other key findings of the drought’s effects in 2014:

  • Direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion (revenue losses of $1 billion and $0.5 billion in additional pumping costs). This net revenue loss is about 3 percent of the state’s total agricultural value.
  • The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion.
  • The loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs related to agriculture represents 3.8 percent of farm unemployment.
  • 428,000 acres, or 5 percent, of irrigated cropland is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California due to the drought.
  • The Central Valley is hardest hit, particularly the Tulare Basin, with projected losses of $810 million, or 2.3 percent, in crop revenue; $203 million in dairy and livestock value; and $453 million in additional well-pumping costs.
  • Agriculture on the Central Coast and in Southern California will be less affected by this year’s drought, with about 19,150 acres fallowed, $10 million in lost crop revenue and $6.3 million in additional pumping costs.
  • Overdraft of groundwater is expected to cause additional wells in the Tulare Basin to run dry if the drought continues.
  • The drought is likely to continue through 2015, regardless of El Niño conditions.
  • Consumer food prices will be largely unaffected. 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.

If the drought continues for two more years, groundwater reserves will continue to be used to replace surface water losses, the study said. Pumping ability will slowly decrease, while costs and losses will slowly increase due to groundwater depletion. California is the only state without a framework for groundwater management.

“We have to do a better job of managing groundwater basins to secure the future of agriculture in California,” said Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which largely funded the UC Davis study. “That’s why we’ve developed the California Water Action Plan and a proposal for local, sustainable groundwater management.”

Failure to replenish groundwater in wet years continues to reduce groundwater availability to sustain agriculture during drought — particularly more profitable permanent crops, like almonds and grapes — a situation lead author Richard Howitt of UC Davis called a “slow-moving train wreck.”

Snow Survey Presses State to Retrench and Reinforce

As we already know, calendar year 2013 closed as the driest year in recorded history for many areas of California, and current conditions suggest no change in sight for 2014.

No Water LogoAnd, California is experiencing the first zero allocation announcement for all customers of the State Water Project (SWP) in the 54-year history of the project.

According to California Department of Water Resources’ (CDWR) third snow survey of the season on February 27, twenty-nine public water agencies buy water from the SWP for delivery to 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland, revealing a continuation of California’s precipitation deficit during the state’s third consecutive dry water year (October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014). And, the statewide snowpack water equivalent was 6 inches, or only 24 percent of the average for the date.

The snowpack, “California’s largest reservoir”, typically issues about a third of the water used by the state’s cities and farms. And, California’s major reservoirs, themselves, are dangerously low.

A CDWR statement issued yesterday evaluating the snow survey findings, called the results, “an improvement from the previous survey on January 30 that found the snowpack’s water content at 12 percent of average for late January.”

According to CDPR, although it is difficult to quantify an exact amount of precipitation that would alleviate the current drought conditions, it is highly unlikely given historic patterns of the remainder of the rainy season that the drought will end this water year. There just isn’t enough time for precipitation to accumulate at an acceptable rate to alleviate drought conditions or the anticipated impacts to drought-stricken communities.

SWP’s principal reservoir, Lake Oroville in Butte County, is at only 39 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity; Shasta Lake north of Redding, California’s and the (federal) Central Valley Project’s (CVP) largest reservoir, is at 38 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity; and San Luis Reservoir, a important SWP and CVP reservoir ,  is at 33 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity.

What’s being done about it? When Governor Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in January, he directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages. CAL FIRE recently announced it hired 125 additional firefighters to help address the increased fire threat due to drought conditions, the California Department of Public Health identified and offered assistance to communities at risk of severe drinking water shortages and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife restricted fishing on some waterways due to low water flows worsened by the drought.

Also in January, the California Natural Resources Agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Food and Agriculture also released the California Water Action Plan, which will guide state efforts to enhance water supply reliability, restore damaged and destroyed ecosystems and improve the resilience of our infrastructure.

Governor Brown has called on all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 20 percent and the Save Our Water campaign has announced four new public service announcements that encourage residents to conserve. Last December, the Governor formed a Drought Task Force to review expected water allocations and California’s preparedness for water scarcity. In May 2013, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order to direct state water officials to expedite the review and processing of voluntary transfers of water.

CDWR Snow