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Climate change conference debates impact on agriculture

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Dan Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, speaks at Monday's conference in Sacramento examining the impact of climate change on California agriculture. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A6 | May 20, 2014 |

SACRAMENTO — Inside the California Museum, “home of the California dream,” scientists and policy-makers gathered Monday to discuss the impact of climate change on state agriculture — a dream that’s sorely imperiled by changing weather patterns.

Hosted by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, conference topics ranged from water use to adaptation to the tangible predicted impacts on California’s agricultural production. Panelists promised more and longer droughts, higher temperatures, an increase in the number of wildfires and the potential for economic loss.

“The climate is an angry beast and we’re poking it with a sharp stick,” said Benjamin Santer, a research scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

While the current drought seems to fall within the natural pattern and there is no overall trend toward California becoming wetter or dryer, as the planet warms, the extremes will happen more often, experts said.

Warmer lows could affect crops that require cold nights, like oranges, and higher and more common highs, especially those over 86 degrees, wilt soy and wheat, said Max Auffhammer, a professor at UC Berkeley.

Auffhammer compared climate change preparation to retirement.

“We know our health is going to be worse when we retire. At some point it’s going to get really bad, with certainty.”

To prepare for the worst, California agriculture and policy has to look beyond state borders, noted Dan Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center.

As the temperatures increase and weather patterns change, crops may find other countries more hospitable and, potentially, California less so, Sumner said. State legislation intended to curb its carbon footprint may drive locally grown food prices up by increasing overhead. And as grain, wheat, soy and corn crops struggle elsewhere, dairy farmers will pay more to feed their cows, or take them to other states. Already, a migration toward greener pastures has begun, Sumner said.

Beyond the farmers themselves, hotter temperatures do and will affect farm workers.

“When it’s really really hot outside, not only do your crops suffer, but the people working on crops are suffering in measurable ways,” said Auffhammer.

The crowd swelled after lunch, when Gov. Jerry Brown took to the podium to speak about keeping California at the forefront of climate change adaptation. He discussed a report released by the Center for Watershed Sciences Monday morning that predicts the impact of the drought on state agriculture — $1.7 billion lost, 14,500 jobs gone — and mentioned that his Colusa County ranch experienced 35 days above 100 degrees last summer.

But while the governor touted California’s climate change efforts, the conference’s final panel on water agreed that groundwater stands between prosperity and desperation. Richard Howitt, a UCD professor, cited Orange and Santa Clara as counties that have successfully regulated water by charging customers who overdraw to replenish the reservoir. But California groundwater remains largely unregulated — and extremely controversial.

This year, groundwater pumping likely will mitigate some of the 6.5 million acre-feet of water farmers won’t receive from low-level surface reservoirs, Howitt said.

However, looking toward the future, he predicted an inevitable decline in agriculture.

“We will have more land (to farm) than water to irrigate,” he said, estimating 1 million acres would have to be removed from production.

“There is no buying out.”

— Reach Elizabeth Case at ecase@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabeth_case

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