Don’t Drought on My Parade

Recently at Lick, handmade signs strategically placed near sinks urging students and teachers to turn off the tap and use less water disappeared from bathroom walls. The removal of these signs has come at an odd time, as California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts since records began. Although San Francisco has received only 23% of the expected average rainfall since July, other areas have been hit even harder: over 17 counties in the state are expected to run out of water completely by May 16. Rainfall for the year in the Sacramento area was 18.46% of the average. Snowpack around the state ranges from 14-33% of the average for this time of year, meaning some rivers will run dry over the summer. Making this drought even worse is the fact that it falls on the third year of a dry winter; as a result, already hard pressed water sources will be squeezed even harder as the state struggles to bring the most vital necessity to its inhabitants.

This time of year, a drive through the Central Valley would normally be a lovely tour of emerald fields and verdant orchards. Instead, fields are dry and dusty as furrows go unplanted and farmers struggle to get enough water to their crops. The Central Valley, California’s most productive agricultural region and the home to the United State’s top four counties in agricultural sales, is just one area of the state that is struggling to make up for the water deficit.  In past years, farmers in the Central Valley were able to contract water from the Federal Government, with an allocation of about 20%. As of this year, the federal government has announced they will allocate no water to Central Valley farmers. Instead, farmers will have to turn to other dwindling sources, such as wellwater, in order to try to nourish crops that would have received federal water or normal winter rain. This is even more difficult than it seems, as the state has done a poor job of regulating other water resources with very few rules governing sources like groundwater. Although it may seem like an obvious fix for the lack of rain and snowpack, groundwater has not been allowed time to be properly replenished during past wet seasons, making it an unreliable source.  Groundwater has also been too heavily depended on in the past; not only is rain and snowfall at an all-time low, but the water table in areas like Fresno has dropped over 100 feet.

Retired USDA conservationist Raul Ramierz checks drought conditions photo courtesy of David Kosling via Flickr

Retired USDA conservationist Raul Ramierz checks drought conditions
photo courtesy of David Kosling via Flickr

An unforeseen effect of the drought has been in the organic farming industry. In the cattle and dairy industry, in order to be certified as organic, cows must receive at least 30% of their food from the pasture. Ranchers in California have been finding this a difficult standard to meet when their pastures have been void of any greenery whatsoever.

In an article on Climatewire, Albert Straus, the founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery and Dairy, located right across the bay in Marin, stated, “Right now, there’s zero pasture. It’s a very, very tough situation. We’re all hoping for rain, but at six-hundredths of an inch yesterday, it’s just enough to wet the ground and that’s about it.”

As a result, cows must be fed more hay—hay that must also be certified organic. Organic hay is expensive, and on top of that, it’s hard to find. Across the country, farmers have increasingly chosen to grow corn rather than hay. As a result of the drought and the preference for corn, an increasing number of organic farmers in California are going after a decreasing supply of hay.

As Mark Kastel, the co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, put it on the Cornucopia website: “This is a drought in rain and a drought in feed.” The result of these two droughts? Farmers in California are now being forced to choose between shelling out for high hay prices and raising the price of their own products, or losing their organic certification.

There are some potential positive impacts of the drought: more awareness about water conservation and regulation, as well as more efficient farming methods. As stated before, California has done a poor job of regulating resources such as groundwater, depending on sources like aquifers (large underground water stores) too heavily and not allowing these resources enough time to be replenished. The drought has already begun to serve as a wake-up call for many government officials to tighten regulations on water use in the state. Farmers are also using this as a time to re-evaluate their watering systems (as roughly 40% of farms use wasteful immigration), some turning to recycled water, others to more efficient irrigation systems. Golf courses and vineyards around the state have promised to start using recycled water. Average citizens can also help reduce the water deficit by using more efficient dishwashers and toilets, or replating gardens and lawns with native, low-water plants (Los Angeles County pays residents to remove grass lawns); and signs along highways flash the frequent reminder of “Serious drought. Help save water” to oncoming traffic.

One last positive impact of the drought is the hope that it will help bring people—politicians especially—together in order to find a solution to this problem. When Obama visited Fresno to meet with farmers and politicians alike on the water issue, he asked that the current situation not become a battle between urban and rural interests, left and right, or north and south, but rather everyone coming together with a goal of fixing the problem soon. According to the New York Times, the President stated, “We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game. We can’t afford years of litigation and no real action.”

That being said, the overall impact of the drought is incredibly negative and will continue to be so. Unemployment is expected to rise, especially for low-level employees, who depend on farms for seasonal work. The state is expected to lose up to $11 billion dollars in revenue from agriculture. An estimated 600,000 acres of farmland will go unplanted.  And despite the rain we’ve had here in March, it looks like little can be done to satiate our poor, parched state. Still, it is our responsibility to minimize the water we use, so it may go somewhere else: minimizing water used when washing our hands, taking shorter showers—because no matter how small the actions seem, the collective impact has the potential to be much greater.

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