California agriculture is weathering its worst drought in decades due to groundwater reserves, but the American produce basket may come up dry in the future if it continues to treat those reserves like an unlimited savings account.
A new report from the University of California, Davis, says the drought – the third most severe on record and forecast to continue through 2015 – is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture.
Groundwater pumping is replacing most river water losses, with some areas more than doubling their pumping rate over the previous year.
The study results highlight California agriculture’s economic resilience and vulnerabilities to drought and underscore the state’s reliance on groundwater to cope with droughts.
Study co-author Jay Lund, director of the university’s Centre for Watershed Sciences, says California’s agricultural economy overall is doing remarkably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves.
“We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts,” Lund says.
The report says the direct costs to agriculture thus far total US$1.5 billion through revenue losses of US$1 billion and US$600 million in additional pumping costs.
The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is US$2.2 billion and the loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs related to agriculture represents 3.8% of farm unemployment.
Some 428,000 acres, or 5%, of irrigated cropland is going out of production due to the drought.
If the drought continues for two more years, groundwater reserves will continue to be used to replace surface water losses, the study says.
Pumping ability will slowly decrease, while costs and losses will slowly increase due to groundwater depletion.
Lead author Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics, calls the groundwater situation a “slow-moving train wreck.”
He says failure to replenish groundwater in wet years continues to reduce groundwater availability to sustain agriculture during drought.
“A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” Howitt says. “We’re acting like the super-rich who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”
California is the only state without a framework for groundwater management.
California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and nearly a quarter of the milk and cream sold in the country.
Across the U.S., consumers regularly buy several crops grown almost entirely in California, including tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, almonds, walnuts, grapes, olives and figs.
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