Five myths about the California drought

  • GARY VARVEL / Indianapolis Star

California is experiencing its third-worst drought in 106 years, resulting in idled cropland and soaring water prices. Since the state produces almost 70 percent of the nation’s top 25 fruit, nut and vegetable crops, California’s pain could soon hit the rest of the country through higher food prices. Will conservation and new water-saving technologies be enough to weather this dry period? Let’s consider five myths about the California drought.

1. California knows how to manage droughts

California is lurching through this drought like a man who thinks he is so rich he doesn’t have to balance his checkbook. Much of the state’s agriculture is relying on unmonitored pumping of more groundwater from aquifers, a backup source of water during droughts. This could hurt the sustainability of crops in future droughts, since the aquifers will be threatened if there is not enough replenishment in wetter years. However, no one in California knows exactly how much water is being drawn from the state’s aquifers, because the pumping of underground water is not measured or recorded by state or federal agencies, or by any private party. However, legislation in Sacramento could bring some transparency and logic to the use of underground water.

The other way California adjusts to drought is by buying and selling water on an informal market. This year, some farmers who grow lower-valued crops are fallowing them and selling their water to keep orchards alive. But there is no central source of information on the prices and quantities of water that is for sale, so farmers with urgent needs to water trees and vines must seek out farmers with water available who might be willing to fallow their crops. This lack of transparency leads to high prices and farmers missing out on water because they’re unaware of the current price and where water might be available.

One exception to this myth is urban Southern California, where a diverse water supply, some wastewater reuse, judicious water storage and effective conservation measures have allowed many water districts to take the drought in stride.

2. The drought will sharply increase food prices

Overall, the drought has reduced surface water supplies in California by one-third. However, increases in pumping underground water will make up three-quarters of this shortfall. When coupled with some shifting of crops, this will be sufficient to supply most fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Lost production will be mostly in commodities such as wheat, cotton and corn that can be grown elsewhere. For now, we do not expect more than a 5 to 10 percent increase in specialty food prices.

Of course, this masks the significant pockets of poverty and pain that farmers, farmworkers and agricultural communities are feeling. A recent UC Davis study predicts that idling cropland will eliminate 17,000 jobs. Unemployment will be most severe in some of California’s poorest regions. Many farmers have had to cut back on annual crops, and in some cases they’ve lost valuable orchards. Farmers sometimes find themselves spending all their profits just to buy water to keep their trees alive.

3. Conservation and technology are the answers

Managing drought by improving technology is part of the solution, but it isn’t enough. New technology, such as low-flow toilets and water-saving appliances, plus personal conservation efforts, such as reducing the watering of lawns, has produced long-term declines in per capita water consumption in California’s cities. Some say such reductions in water use, along with new supply technologies, such as ocean desalination and wastewater reuse, can make California drought-proof. Although such efforts can improve water conditions, they’re very expensive and insufficient alone.

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