California's Drought and Farmland

Greg Plotkin

Caifornia's Drought and farmlandBy now, you've probably heard that California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts of the last 100 years. This has resulted in Governor Jerry Brown imposing the first-ever mandatory water restrictions that will require at least a 25 percent reduction in urban water use. It has also led to debate over how to manage the state's water resources in the face of a growing population and changing climate.

Agriculture was exempted from the new restrictions and some have protested because farms use four out of every five gallons of water supplied by the state's dams, canals and other infrastructure. They point out that farmers could achieve the same water savings as the more stringent urban restrictions by cutting their use by only five percent.

What this misses is that agriculture has already taken a huge hit, largely because of the drought itself. Last year, for instance, farmers fallowed 400,000 acres of cropland – coincidentally, about five percent of the state's irrigated land – because there simply wasn't enough water available from the previous winter's snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one of the state's major sources of water. That cost the agricultural economy an estimated $2.2 billion as 17,000 farmworkers lost their jobs. This year, with the snowpack in the Sierra only a fraction of what it was at this time last year, the amount of farmland that may have to be left unplanted could more than double. For the record, that may come close to the million plus acres of California farmland that was lost to urbanized development over the last three decades.

When the current drought ends, fallowed land can be brought back into production. But the fertile land that has been paved over can never again produce food. Why hasn't there been a bigger outcry about this permanent and continuing loss?

One of the implications of a shortage of surface water is that agriculture has had to rely more on wells that tap underground aquifers. Last year, groundwater accounted for 60 percent of the irrigation water used by farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, twice the percentage as in a "normal" year. Whether this is sustainable is a big question. This year the state legislature passed a groundwater management law that for the first time will require the use of this resource to be measured and ultimately regulated.

Meanwhile, an initiative spearheaded by AFT, the San Joaquin Valley Greenprint, identified ideal areas for ground water recharge (the areas where water, whether from natural precipitation or irrigation, seeps back into the ground, replenishing the aquifers). It so happens that these recharge areas are primarily found on the prime farmland that surrounds almost all the cities in the Valley. This land is also the most vulnerable to urban development.

"Some of the state's best farmland also happens to be the land where groundwater supplies are recharged," adds AFT's California Director, Edward Thompson, Jr. "If we are going to rely more on groundwater for irrigation as well as urban uses, we need to protect this land from being developed and lost for agricultural production."

If the high quality of the land itself isn't reason enough to muster the political resolve of local officials, perhaps the water supply for both farms and urban users will awaken greater concern.