Commentary: Deadly dry and holding

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As California faces what experts are calling the state’s worst drought in its entire history, some scientists are cautioning that the impact may be a harbinger for agriculture nationwide.

Gov. Jerry Brown raised the issue of causation in his State of the State address last week, according to the Associated Press, stating that, “We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.”

Brown asked businesses and homeowners to voluntarily reduce water usage by 20 percent to mitigate the effects of the drought and conserve water needed to fight brush fires and forest fires.

The more than 13 months of severely reduced precipitation has already had an immediate impact in terms of localized shortages and mandatory rationing. But the more serious longer-term damage is to agricultural productivity, according to a story in the Christian Science Monitor.

Agriculture and energy generation account for 80 percent of the nation’s entire water usage, Prof. David Dzombak, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, told the magazine. Food and electricity, obviously, are two commodities modern society cannot do without.

A drought as severe as the current crisis in California needs to be a catalyst for renewed attention to how we manage a limited resource, Dzombak said.

“At the state, regional and federal levels, people are just starting to come to grips with the fact that our climate is not stationary,” Dzombak said. “We are in a dynamic, changing climate situation that will affect all parts of the country in different ways.”

Perhaps worst of all, according to climatologists, it does not appear that the atmospheric conditions causing this prolonged drought will be disappearing anytime soon.

The unseasonably dry weather is the result of an equally unprecedented high-pressure ridge stalled offshore in the Pacific Ocean, which is blocking the advance of the typical winter storms needed to generate precipitation along the West Coast, according to Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. Unfortunately, Fuchs told the CSM, the ridge has persisted for more than a year, and the longer it remains, the less likely it is to dissipate.

“This high-pressure ridge system is feeding on itself, creating a sort of perfect environment for perpetuating dry conditions,” he said.

The ripple effect

Across virtually all of the Southwest, precipitation is as much as 20 percent below normal, according to the National Weather Service, with river flows at historic lows, high-altitude snow packs needed to fill downstream reservoirs severely depleted and out-of-season wildfires already hitting several states.

As a result of dried-up reservoirs, the drought will increase pressure on over-utilized aquifers, as farmers and orchard growers are forced to pump more water from underground sources to replace unavailable irrigation water.

If there is any upside to this drought — and even contemplating something “good” about the damage done to agriculture is a stretch — it’s this: For decades, despite previous Western droughts, severe Midwestern flooding and Florida cold snaps that destroy entire citrus crops, about the only real fallout affecting consumers is higher prices at the grocery store. Like high prices for any other essential commodity, we complain, but we pay the price and move on. Few of us bother to spend much time thinking through the causes or the implications of farm- and food-related natural disasters.

We just assume that no matter what, there will always be stocked-up shelves and filled-up freezers at the local supermarket.

That’s a dangerous delusion, one closely related to the equally insidious fantasy that all of the challenges associated with food productivity — resources depletion, soil erosion, energy constraints — could be solved just by going vegetarian.

Believing that a record-breaking, economy-wrecking drought is merely a blip on the Accu-Weather radar is a close cousin to the belief that switching to soy-based analogs and out-of-season fruits and vegetables will resolve the challenges of global food availability and affordability.

For all the diehard activists out there: California happens to be not only a leading producer of food crops, it is THE most important state in terms of fruit, vegetable and tree nut production. In fact, California produces 70 percent of the total U.S. production of green beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, carrots, onions and lettuce — all those healthy alternatives veggie activists insist we should choose to replace animal foods.

If California’s farm production dries up due to the drought, the impact will be devastating, and not just for the vegan fringe but for all Americans.

The current water crisis is only one piece of a larger set of challenges affecting food production in the 21st century, and none of them are going away anytime soon.

Even if that stubborn high-pressure ridge dissipates tomorrow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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