Groups say drought study only scratches surface

Published online: Jun 03, 2014
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SACRAMENTO—Farm groups say a University of California-Davis study that predicts $1.7 billion in drought-related impacts to agriculture only scratches the surface.

“We won’t truly know the full impact until we go through the summer,” said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “And even then, the effect of this year’s water shortages may ricochet through the farm economy for years to come.”

Researchers from the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences examined computer models and recent water delivery figures to conclude that California’s drought will deliver a severe blow to Central Valley irrigated agriculture and farm communities this year.

The scientists expect valley irrigators to receive only two-thirds of their water deliveries on average—a situation that could result in as much as 410,000 acres taken out of production and cause some 14,500 farmworkers to lose their jobs.

The center released its preliminary report May 19 and is expected to come out with more details this summer.

While the report indicates losses that have been incurred to date, it can’t begin to predict future impacts, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

“As the actions of the short-sighted agencies manifest themselves into reality, the cost will be borne for years to come until permanent crop plantings are replaced and production is regained,” Nelsen said in a statement. “Production, revenue and jobs are in abeyance for several years to come.”

The CCM has asserted as many as 50,000 citrus acres alone could be taken out of production as no federal water is being delivered to California’s prime citrus region in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties. Growers have already bulldozed orchards because of a lack of water.

Nelsen said the report seems to overestimate the amount of groundwater that will be available to offset surface water losses in some areas, though he noted the authors acknowledged they had not yet fully calculated impacts within the Friant Water Authority’s service area.

Even nut growers in northern areas could feel a pinch in the coming months. As walnut buds set for the 2015 crop immediately after harvest this fall, trees will be stressed by a lack of water, said Dennis Balint, the California Walnut Board’s executive officer.

“The drought is not good news for anyone,” he said.

The study was requested by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, whose officials hope state agencies find the information useful as they weigh allocations of assistance, spokesman Steve Lyle said.

“That process is already under way in California,” Lyle said. “The estimates and ongoing work at UC-Davis will help the state better understand the impacts of the drought and confirm where emergency assistance will be needed the most.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown sent the Legislature a $687 million drought relief package, which would include $15 million to address emergency water shortages and $1 million for a public awareness campaign. The package of bills has been proceeding as part of lawmakers’ budget deliberations.

However, the UC’s study isn’t likely to change water allocations for agriculture, said Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources. Allocations are based on such factors as water runoff and weather models, she said.

“The allocations are formulaic,” she said. “They are beyond the influence of academic studies or political influence.”

Kranz reiterated Farm Bureau officials’ earlier argument that such severe impacts could have been avoided if California had built more storage years ago.

“Had we invested in new storage a few years ago, we would have had more places to catch the rain and snow that fell in earlier, wetter years, and had more flexibility to lessen the impact of these dry years on the economy and the environment,” he said in an email.

The walnut board’s Balint agrees.

“We don’t have enough storage,” he said. “If we don’t get some rain, it’s going to be problematic.”