Home Daily News  California agriculture faces greatest water loss ever seen
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Monday, July 21, 2014

California agriculture faces greatest water loss ever seen

by Traci Eatherton, WLJ Managing Editor

Drought conditions in California have the state’s water officials taking extreme measures to curb water waste in urban areas, and local universities pointing out future agricultural losses if there’s not a break in the clouds soon. In addition, the lack of water has some residents looking at the export of alfalfa as the possible culprit.

Last Tuesday, California’s State Water Resources Control Board approved an emergency regulation to ensure that water agencies, their customers and state residents increase water conservation in urban settings or face possible fines or other enforcement.

The new conservation regulation is intended to reduce outdoor urban water use, according to the board. The regulation, adopted by the State Water Board, mandates minimum actions to conserve water supplies both for this year and into 2015. Most Californians use more water outdoors than indoors. In some areas, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping.

With this regulation, all Californians will be expected to stop: washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle, and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated. The regulation makes an exception for health and safety circumstances.

Larger water suppliers will be required to activate their Water Shortage Contingency Plan to a level where outdoor irrigation restrictions are mandatory. In communities where no water shortage contingency plan exists, the regulation requires that water suppliers either limit outdoor irrigation to twice a week or implement other comparable conservation actions.

Finally, large water suppliers must report water use on a monthly basis to track progress.

Local agencies could ask courts to fine water users up to $500 a day for failure to implement conservation requirements in addition to their existing authorities and processes. The State Water Board could initiate enforcement actions against water agencies that don’t comply with the new regulations. Failure to comply with a State Water Board enforcement order by water agencies is subject to up to a $10,000 a day penalty.

“We are facing the worst drought impact that we or our grandparents have ever seen,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “And, more important, we have no idea when it will end. This drought’s impacts are being felt by communities all over California. Fields are fallowed; communities are running out of water, fish and wildlife will be devastated. The least that urban Californians can do is to not waste water on outdoor uses. It is in their self-interest to conserve more, now, to avoid far more harsh restrictions, if the drought lasts into the future. These regulations are meant to spark awareness of the seriousness of the situation, and could be expanded if the drought wears on and people do not act.”

The new regulation was developed following two drought emergency declarations by Governor Jerry Brown. On Jan. 17, Gov. Brown issued a drought emergency proclamation following three dry or critically dry years in California.

The April 25 Executive Order issued by the governor directs the State Water Board to adopt an emergency regulation as it deems necessary, pursuant to Water Code section 1058.5, to ensure that urban water suppliers implement conservation measures.

As drought conditions continue, the State Water Board may revisit this regulation and consider other measures to enhance conservation efforts throughout the state.

Following Board adoption, the regulation will likely go into effect on or about Aug. 1, following submittal to the Office of Administrative Law. The emergency regulation remains in effect for 270 days, unless extended by the State Water Board due to ongoing drought conditions.

One county in California has had a little more luck on the water end, but that county has some seeing red, claiming the water is shipped overseas, primarily to China, in the form of Alfalfa. The southern Imperial Valley, which borders Mexico, draws its water from the Colorado River.

According to media reports, it’s now cheaper to send alfalfa from Los Angeles to Beijing, than it is to send it from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley.

Given a lack of domestic supply and growing demand from the dairy farming industry, China has an increasing demand for imported U.S. alfalfa products.

Total U.S. alfalfa export volume escalated in 2011, increasing 14 percent over that of 2010, according to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. In 2009, China bought over 74,000 tons of alfalfa valued at $20 million, a sharp increase from nil in 2006. Between January and May of 2010, China imported more than 82,000 tons of alfalfa from the U.S. After Japan and the Middle East, China has become the third largest export market for U.S. alfalfa hay. China now has over 9 million dairy cattle, and dairy farming is among the fastest growing livestock sectors. According to industry sources, it is estimated that China needs to import 300,000 tons of alfalfa hay annually.

About 80 percent of U.S. alfalfa hay imports go to North and East China through Tianjin and Shanghai ports, according to US- DA. Most of the remaining 20 percent goes to South China: Guangdong; Fujian; and Guangxi Provinces, which import hay through Huangpu, Nansha, Shekou, Yantian, Zhuhai, Fuzhou, and Fangcheng ports.

But exports illustrate the slippery slope on the “water export” argument, in the form of alfalfa.

“However, if one is to decry the export of ‘virtual water’ in the form of ag products, why stop with alfalfa?” poses Dan Putnam, Alfalfa & Forage Specialist at University of California, Davis, in a paper titled, “Is Shipping Water to China in Alfalfa Hay Immoral?” “Hay ranks 16th in value of ag exports from California,” writes Putnam. “California exports vastly more ‘water’ (if you will) used to produce crops such as almond (No.1 export crop, nearly 80 percent exported), citrus and rice (the majority of which are exported) than the water embodied in California hay. Why not criticize wine, walnuts and tomatoes, which are exported in large quantities? Could it be that people like and appreciate wine and walnuts, and thus are reluctant to criticize, while they really can’t relate to a bale of hay? Ah, the lowly alfalfa plant!” His paper can be found online at A new report from UC Davis shows that California agriculture is weathering its worst drought in decades due to groundwater reserves, but the nation’s produce basket may come up dry in the future if it continues to treat those reserves like an unlimited savings account.

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences study, released July 15 at a press briefing in Washington, D.C., updates estimates on the drought’s effects on Central Valley farm production, presents new data on the state’s coastal and southern farm areas, and forecasts the drought’s economic fallout through 2016.

The study found that the drought— the third most severe on record—is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third.

Groundwater pumping is expected to replace most river water losses, with some areas more than doubling their pumping rate over the previous year, the study said. More than 80 percent of this replacement pumping occurs in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin.

The results highlight California agriculture’s economic resilience and vulnerabilities to drought and underscore the state’s reliance on groundwater to cope with droughts.

“California’s agricultural economy overall is doing remarkably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves,” said Jay Lund, a co-author of the study and director of the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences. “But we expect substantial local and regional economic and employment impacts. We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts.”

Other key findings of the drought’s effects in 2014:

•Direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion (revenue losses of $1 billion and $0.5 billion in additional pumping costs). This net revenue loss is about 3 percent of the state’s total agricultural value.

•The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion.

•The loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs related to agriculture represents 3.8 percent of farm unemployment.

•428,000 acres, or 5 percent, of irrigated cropland is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California due to the drought.

•The Central Valley is hardest hit, particularly the Tulare Basin, with projected losses of $810 million, or 2.3 percent, in crop revenue; $203 million in dairy and livestock value; and $453 million in additional well-pumping costs.

•Agriculture on the Central Coast and in Southern California will be less affected by this year’s drought, with about 19,150 acres fallowed, $10 million in lost crop revenue and $6.3 million in additional pumping costs. •Overdraft of groundwater is expected to cause additional wells in the Tulare Basin to run dry if the drought continues.

•The drought is likely to continue through 2015, regardless of El Niño conditions.

•Consumer food prices will be largely unaffected. Higher prices at the grocery store of high-value California crops like nuts, wine grapes and dairy foods are driven more by market demand than by the drought.

If the drought continues for two more years, groundwater reserves will continue to be used to replace surface water losses, the study said. Pumping ability will slowly decrease, while costs and losses will slowly increase due to groundwater depletion.

California is the only state without a framework for groundwater management.

“We have to do a better job of managing groundwater basins to secure the future of agriculture in California,” said Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which largely funded the UC Davis study. “That’s why we’ve developed the California Water Action Plan and a proposal for local, sustainable groundwater management.”

Failure to replenish groundwater in wet years continues to reduce groundwater availability to sustain agriculture during drought—particularly more profitable permanent crops, like almonds and grapes—a situation lead author Richard Howitt of UC Davis called a “slow-moving train wreck.”

“A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” said Howitt, a Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “We’re acting like the super-rich who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”

To forecast the economic effects of the drought, the UC Davis researchers used computer models, remote satellite sensing data from NASA, and the latest estimates of State Water Project, federal Central Valley Project and local water deliveries and groundwater pumping capacities.

The analysis was done at the request of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which co-funded the research with the University of California.

The report’s other co-authors include UC Davis Agricultural Economists Josué Medellín-Azuara and Dan Sumner, and Duncan MacEwan of the ERA Economic consulting firm in Davis.

California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and nearly a quarter of the nation’s milk and cream.

Across the nation, consumers regularly buy several crops grown almost entirely in California, including tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, almonds, walnuts, grapes, olives and figs. —Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor


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