California is in a severe drought – four years long now. But what does the drought really mean for the things we care about: food production, fisheries, industrial activities, rural communities? As part of the work of the Pacific Institute to evaluate both the impacts of water problems and identify smart solutions, we’ve just released the first comprehensive assessment of the actual impacts of the drought for California agriculture
Many commentators and analysts have worried especially about California’s agricultural sector, which is a major water user and has experienced significant cutbacks in surface water deliveries over the past few years as rainfall has plummeted and reservoirs have been depleted. The bottom line of our analysis is that California agriculture has had record revenue and employment during the drought, but at a long-term cost of massive groundwater overdraft and other practices that cannot be sustained into the future.
California is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, supplying both U.S. and international markets with more than 400 different farm products. That productivity has been made possible by a vast and integrated water infrastructure network that stores water in wet years for use in dry periods, delivers water long distances, and provides large volumes of water to both agricultural and urban users. Using data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Survey and the California Employment Development Department, the Institute’s new study examines the impacts of the ongoing drought on California’s total harvested acreage, gross crop revenue, and agricultural employment through 2014 – the last year for which actual data are available. [When 2015 data come in after harvest, the assessment will be updated.]
While harvested acreage in California has declined during the drought, agricultural revenues remain very high. In 2014, harvested acreage was 6.9 million acres, about 8 percent lower than the average over the past 15 years. Almost all of the reductions in harvested acreage came from temporary fallowing of field crops (e.g., cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets). The area planted in fruits and nuts – such as almonds and pistachios – has actually grown substantially. Most importantly, total crop revenue is at its highest level in California’s history, peaking in 2013 at $33.5 billion. At $33 billion, crop revenue was down slightly in 2014, but it remained the second highest ever recorded, with especially large increases for fruits and nuts. (See Figure 1: all revenue numbers are corrected for inflation.)