(UPDATED COVERAGE, July 17) Groundwater supplies pumped from wells will make up most of the shortfall in agricultural water supplies caused by the California drought, but a new study said the drought will still cause $810 million in lost crop revenues this year.
With alarm rising, industry sources said growers in some regions are chasing water and on lengthy waiting lists for new wells.
Published by the University of California at Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, the study — “Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture,” — estimated the total statewide economic costs of the drought at $2.2 billion, including the loss of 17,100 seasonal and part time jobs. Crop values of the state’s fruit and nut trees will decline by $277 million because of the drought, while losses to vegetables and non-tree fruit are estimated at $47 million in 2014, according to the report.
The UC Davis study said drought is expected to decrease cropland in California by 428,000 acres in 2014. Of that total, fruit and nut trees account for 41,000 acres of the total reduction, with vegetables and non tree fruit representing 10,000 acres of idled ground. The Tulare Basin lot 24,000 acres of cropland because of the drought, the study said.
Sean Stockton, president of Sundale Vineyards & Cold Storage, Tulare, Calif., said both large growers and small growers have been hurt by the drought.
“Having no district water, we are chasing all the well water trying to make sure we have enough water to take care of our existing crops,” he said July 17. Water levels of existing wells are dropping with heavy use.
Stockton said the company has been on a waiting list to get seven wells dug and many other growers are also seeking new wells, he said.
Some surface water is selling for $1,400 to $1,600 per acre-foot, compared to pre-crisis level of $40 to $60 per acre-foot.
“That’s one day of watering for grapes. You divide that over what you are watering and that is scary,” he said.
The surface water reduction caused by the drought, according to the report, is estimated at 6.6 million acre-feet. The increase in groundwater pumping of water was estimated 5.1 million acre-feet, leaving the net water shortage of 1.6 million acre-feet, according to the study.
Dave Puglia, senior vice president at Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said that part of the solution to the drought is to capture more water for agriculture that is available.
“Congress has an opportunity to change the way the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta is being managed so there is better balance to flows that are required for environmental purposes on one hand and on the other hand those who rely on water exported from the Delta, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley especially and cities in the south,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water are lost every year that could have been stored for times of crisis , he said. Puglia said Congress is considering a measure that has the potential to restore balance in the way the Delta is managed and offer growers a more reliable water supply.
Besides crop revenue losses of $810 million, other costs include additional water pumping expenses of $454 million and $203 million in livestock and dairy revenue loss. That totals $1.5 billion in direct costs, according to the report.
About 70% of California’s crop revenue losses and most of the dairy losses are expected to occur in the San Joaquin Valley, most linked to lower-value irrigated pasture and annual crops such as corn and dry beans. Coastal regions and Southern California are less affected by the 2014 drought, with the 19,000 acres expected to be fallowed and a projection of $10.1 million in lost revenue.
The report said 2015 is likely to be another dry year in California, even if the El Nino weather pattern returns.
“Additional dry years in 2015 and 2016 would cost Central Valley crop farming an estimated total of $1 billion per year,” report authors Richard Howitt, Josue Medellin-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan, Jay Lund and Daniel Sumner said in the paper.
With groundwater pumped from wells expected to increase from a 31% share of agricultural water supplies last year to 53% this year, the report said failure to replenish groundwater in wet years will reduce the groundwater needed to sustain profitable permanent crops like grapes, tree fruit and nuts during California’s future droughts.
Better understating of groundwater management and water markets are needed to more efficiently cope with drought conditions, according to the report.
Les Wright, Fresno County Agriculture Commissioner, said there has been a huge influx of well permits.
“What I’m hearing from industry is that the well-drillers are about eight to 10 months behind, “ he said. “Even if you run out of water today, it is going to be a while before you get a well driller out there.” Declining water tables are a concern. “The main concern right now is that one grower has water and he is at 100 feet but his neighbor drops his down to 300 feet; how long is his going to last?”
Wright said most growers are hoping for heavy rains this winter and that conditions will return to normal, but it takes time for aquifers to recharge.
Production of grapes this year may be hurt by the drought in terms of berry size, Stockton said. Using predominantly well water, growers have to deal more with salt and alkaline water than surface water from typical snowpack and runoff.
The big worry is for next season, he said.
“If we don’t get rain in this offseason, it is going to be catastrophic for 2015,” Stockton said. “There’s no way around it.”