Water Shortage in California Makes a Huge Impact on Local Agriculture
The repercussions of California's largest-in-the-nation agriculture business are deep and maybe lasting as the state enters another year of drought with no relief in sight. State and federal water agencies have halted supply to certain farmers, but others continue to receive water thanks to water rights dating back over a century.
Why is There a Water Problem in California?
California has failed to sufficiently prepare for and create a working water supply system that can keep up with the state's growing population. California receives enough rain and snow to serve its 40 million population and 4 million acres of agricultural for several years if it is properly maintained. The difficulty comes from a lack of infrastructure and a regulatory system that needs a large volume of water to flow directly to the ocean, so they can't capture enough water to get through the dry seasons.
Water scarcity has a tremendous impact on their ability to create electricity. Water provided 19 percent of California's power in 2019, according to the California Energy Commission. The Edward Hyatt Power Plant in California's second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, was forced to shut down for the first time since it began in 1967 due to low water levels. When operating at full capacity, Oroville's power plant can supply enough electricity to power up to 800,000 homes. When you consider that a substantial percentage of our power now comes from intermittent wind and solar, the shortage of captured water further adds to their ongoing energy issue.
How Much Water do California Farmers Use?
Not all of the annual runoff can be developed for urban or agricultural use. A considerable amount is used by the environment to maintain healthy ecosystems in California rivers, estuaries, and wetlands. The total accessible surface water supply now stands at 82.5 million acre-feet, thanks to out-of-state supplies from the Colorado and Klamath rivers. Water in California was used in the following ways in 2019, according to the Department of Water Resources:
- Environmental use: 48%
- Agricultural use: 41%
- Urban use: 11%
How Do Farmers Get Their Water?
Groundwater extraction provides around 30% of California's agricultural applied water on an annual basis. When surface water supplies are reduced during droughts, groundwater feeds an even higher percentage of the population. Early in the state's history, surface water supplies were constructed.
Californian farmers constructed dams, canals, pumping facilities, and aqueducts to transport water to growing cities and arid agriculture. These supplies were created to supplement available groundwater sources and compensate for the state's unequal natural water distribution.
The Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, the Colorado River Aqueduct and the All-American Canal, all built by the federal government, have been the principal sources of water for most Californian farmers.
What is the Response to the Water Shortage?
Farmers are responding to water shortages in three ways: stopping the development of some areas or tearing up orchards due to a lack of water, drilling new wells to tap into decreasing aquifers, and purchasing water from those who have it.
All three have significant economic implications. They are driving some farmers out of business entirely, particularly small family operations, hastening the shift to large-scale agribusiness corporations with the financial resources to cope, altering the types of crops that can be profitably grown, and supercharging the semi-secretive market for buying and selling water.
All of these changes are occurring at the same time that the state is putting into effect a 2014 rule limiting the quantity of water that farmers can pump from subsurface aquifers.
The state Department of Water Resources recently announced that four San Joaquin Valley agencies, including the massive Westlands Water District, had their underground water management plans rejected as inadequate, indicating that the state will be aggressive in enforcing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Drought is clearly one motivation for drilling hundreds of additional wells, which must go deeper and deeper as water tables drop due to over pumping, occasionally resulting in soil collapse above. Another is that farmers are anticipating a crackdown and are doing everything they can to prepare for it.
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