A Climate Forecast for California s Drought

I would like to offer you a climate forecast for California based on our recent drought— but of a social, economic and political nature as opposed to a meteorological one.
Here in California we are starting to see the effects of the drought take hold. In the Capitol in Sacramento I believe there was hope that a wet winter would stave off the need to take tough political action for another year. Many here are now aware that the Governor’s policies last week of mandatory water usage cuts of 25%—mostly by consumers with agriculture by and large exempt— will only cut back our total water consumption by some single-digit percentage.
What has been of interest to me is to see urban Californians now start to understand where its state’s water is really used. It is becoming a household statistic that agriculture uses 80% of California’s water and is only 2% of the state’s GDP. For the first time, a broader swath of California urbanites are really starting to compare the water required to wash a car versus grow almonds for a glass of almond milk. Further water cuts will need to be made and the urbanites are not going to let California agriculture’s water usage to go unnoticed.
My forecast is that this is just the beginning— and much of the agriculture community is unprepared for the social media tsunami that could hit.  Yes, the urbanites will shame the most egregious water abusing urban communities, including the 1/3rd of residents from San Diego to Los Angeles that astoundingly increased water usage in February by double digits in the midst of the drought or Santa Fe, CA that is averaging 345 gallons of water used per person per day. We can also expect band-standing protests, like this week’s “occupation” of Nestle Waters bottling operation in Sacramento.
Urbanites are not likely to protest their local farmers market farmer, and most probably don’t know at whom specifically in the agriculture community they should point their fingers.  They may start to follow the trail of almond shells, rice husks and pomegranate seed crumbs to eventually understand at a sound-bite level how California’s byzantine water rights laws disproportionately enrich a few families and corporations— but we should not expect an attempt to rewrite those laws to succeed anytime soon.  They may choose to vilify growers of one or two specific water-intensive crops—like almonds or alfafa— through purchase boycotts or calls for export tariffs.  Even in California, our Capitalist DNA will mute calls for an industrial policy of government picking winner and loser crops. I do anticipate we will have interesting discussions about whether water should be viewed as a market or a common good, and if water is a competitive market whether having fair access and fair market pricing mechanisms in place is necessary.
I don’t expect this issue to subside because, clearly, further cuts are going to be required. Moreover, we can expect to hear stories of small Central Valley communities with farm workers who water crops on large farms all day but then come home in the evening and have no fresh water for their families to use for cooking or bathing. Many farming communities will live off trucked-in and bottled water and many other small farming communities will become deserted. It will also be interesting to see how the Sao Paolo, Brazil water crisis will effect the California water discussion.  Sao Paolo, a metropolis of 20m people, is expected to run out of water in June.
For the farmers, I expect them to do what is in their best interest. They have benefited from the cheap access to water. If the access to or price of that production input changes, then they will be forced to take action.
For large multi-state and multi-national growing operations, they may have the option of leaving California for greener pastures. One very large multi-national grower I spoke to said that water is only 2% of his company’s cost here in California. If that price goes up, his company will simply go elsewhere where water is still cheap and abundant. I’ve heard that many of California’s dairies are ready to bolt to other states that have been trying to lure them away with the promise of lower taxes and abundant water.  My forecast is that the drought will cause California to lose its mantle as the largest dairy state in the US.
For the class of California-based agricultural producers that have senior, long-standing water rights, if they can afford to, they will continue to dig deeper to access the water for which they have the rights and continue their operations without great interruption.
Another class of California growers that are not as dependent on irrigation from the Sierra snowmelt, but still need to be climate-smart growers to remain viable, is the Salinas Valley, the world’s fresh produce salad bowl, as well as the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. These growers are more dependent on coastal fog, which is becoming less reliable with temperature spikes in the last few years.  The wine growers in particular have already embraced technologies like drip irrigation to use water sparingly.  Indoor growing may be embraced as a supplement to field-based growing for some vegetable crops, particularly as lower energy costs and efficiency improvements (many coming from the marijuana industry) are making the economics of large-scale indoor growing more cost effective.
A final class of California-based growers do not have access to the water that they need.  Some will modify their production plans by cutting back, switching to less water-intensive crops, or embracing smart irrigation technologies– if they can afford it. Some will go under or sell out.


So my forecast? I predict more storm clouds on the horizon as the high pressure in both the urban and agriculture communities continue to build and start to collide. And the sunny days of California as the undisputed leading agriculture state may give way something far less predictable and different than today.


-Rob Trice


photo credit: NBCnews.com