Commentary: Make sure people understand the drought’s full impact


Issue Date: March 12, 2014
By Rich Matteis
Rich Matteis
At least 500,000 acres of California farmland will be fallowed this year due to drought and water shortages, causing ripple effects throughout the economy.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

In the middle of a potential catastrophe, it's hard to know just how bad the outcome is going to be. It's like falling out of a plane: If the parachute opens, you're OK. If not …

Right now, many California farmers and ranchers feel like they're falling out of that plane and the parachute isn't going to open. The severe California drought and the draconian water shortages that have followed may portend disaster for many farmers and those whose jobs directly or indirectly depend on agricultural production.

The potential impact of the drought came into sharp focus at the end of January, when a state survey put the snowpack at a record-low 12 percent of average. That snow survey—followed by 0 percent water allocations from state and federal water projects—galvanized attention on the California drought and the possible impacts.

At Farm Bureau, we've been getting the questions constantly from legislators, agency officials, reporters and others: What will this mean to rural California, to food production, to jobs? We have been forthright in our responses, acknowledging the many unknowns while emphasizing the likely pain the situation could cause in many agricultural communities. And we have taken every opportunity to point out that it needn't be this harsh, if California had invested in more facilities to store water during rainy winters.

When describing the impact of the drought to date, we point out that the initial impact fell onto livestock producers—particularly cattle ranchers—who have no rangeland grasses to offer their animals and who have either been feeding hay to them or selling them off, or both. We have cited the estimate from the California Farm Water Coalition that 500,000 acres or more of Central Valley farmland may be idled due to drought and resulting water shortages. And we warn that other farmland will be under-irrigated this year, leading to further reductions in crop production.

Just how deep those reductions will be, we can't say—we're still falling out of the plane, after all. But, given the depth and breadth of the water shortages, it's fair to expect food production from California will decline in 2014.

As a result, we all should be concerned about the impact on food prices. A number of factors will affect that: Retailers will try to substitute produce from other regions or nations, if it's available. But it's reasonable to expect that if food production declines significantly in California, there will be ripple effects on food prices and availability later this year.

There will also be ripple effects throughout the economy, especially in rural communities but in urban areas, too. Cuts in crop production will cause hardship for people whose jobs depend on harvesting, packing, shipping and marketing those crops, and for people whose businesses sell hardware, groceries, supplies and services to the affected farms and their employees. The impact could ripple out further, to dockworkers at California ports and other urban residents whose jobs are indirectly linked to food production including the farm product processing and packaging sectors. In all, according to a recent study conducted for the community colleges, as many as 2.5 million California jobs are tied to agriculture.

That suffering and economic dislocation could have been lessened, if California had done what Farm Bureau and other organizations have been urging for years: build more water storage to add flexibility to the water system and cushion it from the impacts of drought.

Whenever we talk about drought, we bring the conversation around to storage. We point out that, for the last 30 years, environmental activists have insisted that we don't need storage—that we can solve California water problems through conservation alone.

We have conserved—all of us, urban and rural. In the period between 1967 and 2007, for example, tons of crops produced per acre-foot of water have increased 85 percent in California. Urban water use has also become steadily more efficient. There's always room for improvement, but the fact that the combination of two below-average years and one dry year threaten to cripple large parts of the state shows the emptiness of the promise that we can conserve our way to water security.

If legislators ask what actions they can take to ease the impact, we emphasize that the best way government could address the situation in the long term is to create more water storage in California.

Right now, in the state Legislature, lawmakers are reworking a water bond for the November ballot. That bond must include a significant commitment to new storage—producing real water—and the funding must be secure from future legislative attempts to redirect it.

Farm Bureau will do all we can to make sure people continue to focus on the drought and water shortages, and on what they mean for the future of the state. I encourage you as farmers, ranchers, farm employees and rural businesspeople to tell your individual stories at every opportunity.

Talk to your elected officials, to reporters, to your neighbors. Make sure they know what this drought is doing to our state—and make sure they understand that future droughts can be less catastrophic if we invest now to protect ourselves.

(Rich Matteis is administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at rmatteis@cfbf.com.)

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