Farming in California is about to change forever, as a severe drought continues to affect the state’s farmers and communities.
But instead of mitigating the devastating natural impact of the disaster, state and federal regulations seem to be making things worse.
How the state handles this drought will have far reaching consequences. Most Americans don’t realize that California agriculture — the state’s leading industry — supplies two-thirds of the country’s fruit and nuts, as well as one third of its vegetables.
But now, studies show just how dire the state of California agriculture has become. One study says this is the driest decade in more than a century, while another published in Nature examined tree rings and suggests this could be the driest period in 1,200 years. According to a government drought monitor, more than 93% of the state is in a “severe drought” and around 40% is in “extreme drought.” A recent survey from the Department of Water Resources found that the snowpack is down nearly 40%, and California’s major water reservoirs are also below their historical averages.
I spoke to farmers and water leaders in the key agricultural region of the Central Valley, as well as those involved in state government, to understand how the drought is affecting these areas, and what can be done to mitigate its effects.
In response, some farmers are abandoning agriculture altogether and using their land for other purposes, while others have already shifted to more lucrative crops. Some are even leaving acres of their land uncultivated and empty, a process called “fallowing.”
All of this could possibly drive up the cost of food nationwide and lead to less variety in the produce aisle.
Justin Diener operates a farm in the Central Valley. His family has been growing the essentials of the American table for nearly a century and has a deep history of farming – and water innovation – in the area. His great uncle and aunt moved to Five Points, California, in 1930. Even then, they realized there was a serious need for water.
In 1952, Diener’s great uncle and other landowners came together to create the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the United States and a crucial supplier of water for local farms. The Westlands relies largely on water from the Central Valley Project (CVP), a network that sends the water to the contractors, but for the second year in a row, it hasn’t gotten a drop.
The Chief Operating Officer of Westlands Water District, Jose Guitierrez, told me, “We are a CVP contractor and we do receive our water from the Bureau of Reclamation. That said, this is our second year of a zero percent allocation and we are receiving no CVP water this year. And we didn’t receive any CVP water last year, either.”
Without water, some farmers may leave their land fallow. Guitierrez at Westlands noted the impact of that decision. “If you can imagine every time an acre of land is fallowed, somebody is losing a job and there’s just less food being produced.”
Jeanine Jones at the Department of Water Resources said the last couple of droughts have led to more than 500,000 acres of land being left fallow. If the current drought persists, that amount will likely double.
The mayor of San Joaquin, Julia Hernandez, said that fallowing affects more than just farmers: “A large percentage of our community is agriculture workers…so the direct impact on fallow land is the loss of jobs, the loss of green spaces, for our families and our children.”
Guitierrez also said he’s hearing that many landowners might choose to “push out” more of their trees this year, which means that they uproot them and let them die.
Diener said his family is farming only 60% of the land they control this year due to the drought. Next year, they might end up farming only 40% of the land and leaving the rest fallow.
In addition to the dry environment, farmers are also facing challenges from the state. California has strict environmental rules mandating the use of water for certain ecological goals that are often at odds with getting water to farmland.
One of the more controversial policies from the State Water Resources Control Board has been criticized as “dumping water into the ocean.” This is when the state releases water from upstream storage into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. This is done in large part to protect endangered species of fish. Many farmers say that water should be going to them instead.
But it isn’t just California policies causing issues. In 1992, Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which mandates that 800,000 acre-feet of water must go to fish and wildlife each year.
Unfortunately, according to Diener, some of these protected fish species are still declining despite the water policies.
While some farms adapt to the drought and low water delivery by utilizing groundwater from wells – like Diener’s family — in order to pump the water they need, acquiring water is about to become even more complicated.
A new federal regulation ,the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014, mandates that local agencies have to create and carry out plans for certain basins. Those plans have to become sustainable within 20 years. The result will be less water available to pump in the Central Valley, and it could change farming in the state forever.
The government isn’t entirely to blame for the problem, or entirely helpless to fix it. There are some proposals that lean toward long-term solutions, and President Biden’s budget includes money for water efforts, but is focused more on environmental issues than those impacting farmers.
Farming complications in the Central Valley have nationwide — and global — implications. There is a national security side to drought response as well. If local farms aren’t supported, Americans will be more reliant on foreign sources of food, which becomes a problem not only as supply chain issues arise, but also when basic food safety is in question.
Dr. Michael Shires, a researcher behind the Westlands study, discussed the global aspect of the drought in a press conference.
“In the past, I would argue that growers and imports from other countries have been our flexibility that allow us to circumvent and to moderate the swings that are caused by the unpredictability of the water supply,” he said, adding, “but that has to change.”
The financial struggle of farming is just one reason Diener says their family farm in the Central Valley might be coming to an end. “A lot of people have decided that they don’t want any part of it because of the difficulty they’ve seen their parents struggle with it,” he said, noting there is the question of how people will continue and “provide a decent lifestyle and livelihood versus the perceived value that they could get for selling the land.”
He explained, “there are a number of farms for sale today in this area because they don’t have heirs that want to take it on.”
The struggles facing farmers don’t only arise from poor policy decisions and natural circumstances, but are also evidence of a broader cultural trend.
Americans are not always on the side of the farmer or the local worker who carries out important, everyday jobs.
Diener explained that many political leaders have misplaced their priorities. “We as a society in the United States of America have decided that, you know, protecting species, protecting the environment in that sense is very important. [It] comes at a higher value maybe than meeting the obligations we may have made earlier on in providing resources to people.”
“And so now we’re kind of finding ourselves where we’re at as a result of that.”
But Diener still maintains an optimistic outlook despite the struggles created by policies and the environment.
Standing beneath the hot, California sun, in a field of crops, he spoke about his family and how he grew up in the region. He reflected, “I think there’s definitely a future here. We just have to be creative and invest in the future and try to make things better.”
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.