By Kelly Zito
California’s most recent drought cost consumers more than $1.5 billion in lost hydropower and led to the cancellation of two commercial salmon fishing seasons, but its impacts on agriculture were more mixed than previously thought, according to a water policy report released Thursday.
While water shortages drove down revenues in some farming districts nearly 20 percent, statewide, the industry posted some of the highest sales totals on record.
“A lot of districts suffered and faced drought restrictions, but in other counties they had record crop plantings,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, researcher at Oakland’s Pacific Institute.
The 107-page study, titled “Impacts of the 2007-2009 California Drought: What Really Happened?” examined state and federal data on crops, employment, river flows, wildlife surveys, salinity levels and other indicators in an effort to gauge the economic fallout of three consecutive years with well-below-normal precipitation.
Researchers found that while fallowed farmland and parched irrigation canals drew much media and political attention between 2007 and 2009, many of the biggest and most productive farms with senior water rights in the San Joaquin Valley received the maximum volume of water they requested from state and federal operators of the California water system. And even those that received a small fraction of their requests managed to find other water.
As a result, the state’s nearly 82,000 farms and ranches sold just under $35 billion in goods in 2009, the third-highest year on record.
In contrast, anemic river flows during the drought cut the state’s hydropower production in half, forcing utilities to turn to more expensive and less eco-friendly natural gas combustion. Christian-Smith calculated that consumers paid an additional $1.7 billion for natural gas during the three-year period, a resource that added some 13 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
The drought took its toll on the environment in other ways, too. With less freshwater flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, fish populations already in decline experienced further deterioration. In the case of the commercial salmon fishery, federal regulators shut down the 2008 and 2009 seasons completely, resulting in 1,823 lost jobs and $118.4 million in lost income, the report said.
That’s not to say that food growers had an easy time during the drought years. Holders of junior water rights on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley received only about 10 percent of their requested water deliveries during drought years. And crop revenues in Kern and Kings counties fell by 9 percent and 19 percent, respectively, between 2006 — the last wet year before the drought — and 2009.
But the report pointed to labor data showing that high unemployment in the Central Valley is a chronic problem that has less to do with water supplies than with the downturn in housing and construction. In fact, many farmers were able to sustain their operations during the recent water scarcity by shifting to less thirsty crops, buying water from other sources or pumping water from underground aquifers.
Bill Chandler, who grows nuts and tree fruits on his farm south of Fresno, relied almost entirely on his property’s wells during the drought. While that helped keep his crops healthy, he said the extra energy costs to pump well water ate into his already thin profits.
Still, Chandler is glad that his local irrigation district is buying up area land to build a series of water-collection ponds that will refill the aquifers under the land his family has controlled since 1888.
“We have to be ready for the next drought or we’ll have to sell out to someone who wants to build houses,” Chandler said.
Indeed, the Pacific Institute said more agricultural districts need to follow the lead of Chandler’s district. More farmers must also install water-efficient irrigation systems and switch to drought-resistant crops.
But they aren’t the only Californians who need to make changes, the report emphasized. To better cope with the next inevitable drought, the entire state must bolster water conservation and recycling, increase energy supplies from neighboring states and expand fish hatcheries to ensure survival of vulnerable species.
“We have to get out of this game of fish versus cities versus farms,” said Chris Sheuring, water analyst with the California Farm Bureau Federation. “We’re going to have 50 million people in this state soon. The demands on the system are only increasing, and the supply isn’t.
“We have no choice but to work together.”
— Reach Kelly Zito at [email protected]