California drought costly to growers, jobs as farmland shrinks. New study shows how much

CRAIG KOHLRUSS/ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

As California prepares for a fourth consecutive year of drought and farmland across the Golden State increasingly goes idle, growers continue to face mounting economic challenges.

In a new report about the financial toll of the state’s extreme drought conditions, researchers estimated that the state’s irrigated farmland dropped by 752,000 acres, or nearly 10%, from 2019 to 2022.

Fields meant to harvest rice, almonds and other crops are instead going unplanted, causing the level of fallowed land across California to surpass the prior peak seen during the state’s last drought that ran from 2012 to 2016.

As a result, the researchers found, California crop revenues fell by $1.7 billion, or 4.6%, during that time, and the state’s agriculture and food processing sectors lost more than 19,000 jobs — serious tolls that are worsening each year the drought drags on.

“California is no stranger to drought, but this current drought has hit really hard in some of the typically water-rich parts of the state that are essential for the broader state water supply,” UC Merced Professor John Abatzoglou, a co-author on the report, said in a statement.

The past three water years, which run from October through September, were the driest in California history. Water deliveries to the Central Valley were cut by nearly 43% in both 2021 and 2022 due to low reservoir storage. The Sacramento Valley experienced an all-time low water supply last year.

In order to help the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture understand the ramifications, researchers from UC Merced, UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California studied shifts in irrigated land by surveying irrigation districts, analyzing satellite data and using agricultural and economic modeling.

Researchers found that the most common mitigation measures used by growers was fallowing land or increasing groundwater pumping. While those strategies helped limit further losses, UC Merced Engineering Professor Josué Medellín-Azuara, who led the report, said that may not suffice in the future.

“Should dry conditions persist throughout 2022, a higher tier of adaptation measures may come into play to reduce economic impacts on agriculture and communities that host thousands of households relying on agriculture for a living,” Medellín-Azuara said in a statement.

The California Rice Commission earlier this month estimated that the state’s rice harvest would be about half that of a typical season. Not only is that bad news for farmers but also for wildlife that rely on the fields for food and refuge, the commission warned.

Tim Johnson, the commission’s president and CEO, said the parched farmland threatens millions of wetland-dependent birds, as well as the entire Pacific Flyway ecosystem.

Jonhson said in a statement that his organization is working with state and federal agencies to “assist in tracking the impacts this historic drought will have on waterbirds, with the goal of using that science to better help the Pacific Flyway in the years ahead.”