Last month, Governor Jerry Brown of California surprised observers by announcing a suspension of California’s state-wide urban water restrictions implemented last year to conserve water as the state continued to battle its multi-year drought. California’s rainy season, typically running from October through March, produced a near-average snowpack this past season for northern parts of the state compared to historically low levels measured in recent years. Meanwhile, however, in southern parts of the state, the drought conditions continue as precipitation has remained lower than usual.
California is a major agricultural producer in the United States, growing many of our fruits and vegetables, raising much of our livestock, and producing the country’s finest wines. The agriculture industry has come under fire during the drought for its large use of available water supplies, and its prolonged immunity to the impacts of water restrictions, particularly for senior water rights holders. The growth of water-intensive almonds, and the unregulated access to groundwater resources, for example, have come under scrutiny. However, the region is a major supplier of food for the country and other parts of the world, and agriculture will continue to remain a vital industry in the state. As such, the news that the El Niño weather pattern had finally delivered some relief to the parched state, as had long been promised by climatologists, including those from NASA, led to a sigh of relief for regulators and leaders of water-intensive industries, including agriculture.
How will the near-average precipitation in parts of the state impact agriculture? And will consumers finally be able to enjoy their water-intensive California almonds free of guilt? While this season’s precipitation is certainly welcome, it hasn’t yet saved the state from the impacts of drought.
Much of California’s agricultural production occurs in the middle of the state, in the Central Valley. However, most of the precipitation that occurs in the state, and occurred this past season, falls in the northern parts of the state. Further diffusing the benefits, the rainy season occurs over the winter rather than in the summer, when most crops require larger amounts of water to grow and withstand the heat. To fuel its production, the Central Valley takes much of its water from underground aquifers, which run the risks of both pollution and depletion. In fact, a study published last year using NASA satellite data indicated that California’s Central Valley Aquifer System is being depleted at an alarming rate, and was labeled as “highly stressed.” The Central Valley also relies on redirected water from the northern parts of the state. This year’s relatively abundant rains in the norther are, therefore, a positive sign for California agriculture in the Central Valley. However, for this winter’s precipitation to benefit crops through their growing season, the snowpack in Northern California must remain frozen until later months, at which point the melting and runoff can provide much needed water to thirsty crops. There is, unfortunately, some concern that higher temperatures are causing these snowmelts to melt faster than usual, thus providing no guarantee that this winter’s precipitation will benefit farmers when they need it most.
Luckily for agriculture, its sources of water have remained relatively secure throughout the drought, and likely will continue to be secure in the coming season. As previously noted, Californian agriculture has relied heavily on its aquifers to irrigate its crops during the drought, and the industry continues to receive beneficial treatment and relative priority access to the water resources that are available. Those aquifers are being depleted, however, and will not continue to provide water for agriculture forever if the waters continue to be used more quickly than they can replenish. In addition, there remains a challenge for agriculture in other parts of the state, such as Southern California, which produces items including beef, milk, avocadoes, citrus, and dates, among others. Extreme drought conditions continue in this part of the state, and reservoirs, such as Lake Mead, remain alarmingly depleted.
The higher reservoir and snowpack levels in the north compared to recent years undoubtedly provide a sigh of relief for regulators as they continue to monitor total water usage in the state. The recent rains may provide some temporary relief to groundwater resources, as farmers switch to irrigation via surface water while supplies are ample.