Drought forces California farmers to idle cropland
Drought-stricken California farmers facing drastic cutbacks in irrigation water are expected to idle some 500,000 acres of cropland this year in a record production loss that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage, industry officials said.
Large-scale crop losses in California, the No. 1 U.S. farm state producing half the nation's fruits and vegetables, would undoubtedly lead to higher consumer prices, especially for tree and vine produce grown only there. But experts say it is too soon to quantify the effect.
Coming off its driest year on record, California is gripped in a drought that threatens to inflict the worst water crisis in state history, prompting Governor Jerry Brown last month to declare a state of emergency.
He urged citizens to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent voluntarily.
California water managers later said the drought would force an unprecedented cutoff in state-supplied water sold to 29 irrigation districts, public water agencies and municipalities, barring an unexpected turnaround.
Irrigation deliveries to another group of agricultural districts served by the state are expected to be reduced by half, and an even larger group of farmers who get water from the federally operated Central Valley Project are likewise bracing for sharp cutbacks this year.
"We're in a dire situation that we've never been in before," said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The state's network of reservoirs that collect runoff of rainfall and snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range - the state's biggest source of fresh water - is badly depleted.
So too are the underground aquifers that have provided farmers reserves when water was otherwise scarce.
"Some farmers may still grow crops on some of their land. Some farmers may face bankruptcy because of this," said Mike Wade, executive director of another industry group, the California Farm Water Coalition.
Ironically, the crisis is unfolding after an all-time banner year for California agriculture, with statewide production valued at $43.5 billion in 2012. Most of that comes from California's Central Valley, a flat, fertile region stretching 450 miles (720 km) north-south from Redding to Bakersfield.
Farm districts representing about half of irrigated agriculture in that region have reported that they already expect to fallow 385,000 acres (155,804 hectares) this year because of the water shortage, Wade said.
Extrapolating to the remainder of the Central Valley, Wade said his organization expects the full amount of irrigated land removed from production this year will easily top 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of the region's approximate 6 million total.