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California Water Crisis to Leave 800,000 Acres of Farmland Empty This Year

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: July 19, 2022
1,250 square miles of farmland will sit idle this year because of California's water crisis.
An aerial view of homes and a golf course next to undeveloped desert on July 13, 2022 in Palm Desert, California. The drought is so severe that 1,250 miles of farmland in Central Valley, which produces half of the country’s food, will be left unused this year. (Image: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

California’s unprecedented megadrought may leave as much as 800,000 acres of farmland, amounting to 1,250 square miles, unworked this year, says an expert. 

In preliminary findings of a study conducted by the University of California Merced with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Associate Professor Josue Medellin-Azuara told Bloomberg the figure on July 15.

The figure is so enormous that it doubles what was left unworked last year and is described as “the most in at least several decades.”

Medellin-Azuara said that while an official figure is still several weeks away, the data is estimated from satellite imaging.

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Bloomberg explains the significance of the figure is not light, as the area affected is in California’s Central Valley, which accounts for almost a quarter of U.S. food production.

At the root of the issue appears to be farmers being forced to make tough decisions as to what to plant as California’s surface water rights holders are having their quotas cut. 

Prolonged drought in combination with minimal snowfall over the winter are contributing to the low water level.

UC Merced noted the economic impact of drought on California’s farmers and economy was already significant enough throughout 2021.

In a February article posted to the University’s website, economists estimated $1.1 billion was shed from the economy in conjunction with 8,750 full and part time jobs.

When combined with the ancillary impact on other sectors, the figures expand to $1.7 billion lost and more than 14,500 jobs.

The report noted that 395,000 acres, of which 385,000 were in Central Valley alone, were idled due to water rationing, they stated.

And it’s not just crop, fruit, and vegetable farmers feeling the impact. The situation is hurting dairy farmers as well.

In a July 19 article by Daily Herd Management (DHM), Ryan Junio, owner of Four J Jerseys, a Central Valley dairy farmer, told the outlet that water shortages are their number one concern, even moreso than the skyrocketing price of feed.

Junio said that the situation is severe enough that, “State regulations need to change, or we will be looking abroad to feed our country.”

A July 10 CNN wire article stated the problem simply, “There just isn’t enough water in California to satisfy what’s been allotted on paper.”

The century-old system as it stands now involves a complex series of property rights governing groundwater and surface water usage seen to be adversely affecting both those who hold the rights and those who do not as the government attempts to conserve water as it runs out.

A July article by Sonoma Magazine explained that the aquifer in the prestigious wine producing area of Sonoma Valley is short 15 to 20 feet of water this year alone following the low snowfall winter.

The situation is so dire that wells, some dug 800 feet deep, ran dry after 45,000 wells have been installed to service 41,000 people across their residences, businesses, and wineries.

As a result, the government is looking at initiatives to centrally manage groundwater usage.

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs at the California Milk Producer Council, Geoff Vanden Heuvel, told DHM that dairy farmers are only getting by because of elevated milk prices. 

“With $25 milk, they can still afford to pay for feed, but there is growing concern that milk price drops and feed stays elevated. What do guys do then?” he asked.

Data from the USDA shows that Class I milk sold for an average price of $25.87 per hundredweight in July, the same price as in June, a figure up from $19.71 in January.

One hundredweight is equivalent to 4.76 U.S. gallons.

Vanden Heuvel was frank about the cause, “We’ve mined tens of millions of acre-feet of water out of the ground over the last 30 to 40 years,” characterizing the situation at hand as “really scary.”

He added that the problem was not isolated to California, “Lake Mead and Lake Powell both were full and over 27 million acres of feet of water each in ’99…Now, between the two, they got 15-million-acre feet of water and they’re getting to a point where they’re not going to be able to generate power because they’re getting so low.”