Renata Brillinger, Executive Director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, offers insight into how the California drought is impacting farmers and what responses are necessary.
This year is the driest year on record for Los Angeles and San Francisco, and severe drought is affecting 85% of California. How is this affecting California farmers?
Generally, California relies on a few infrequent yet significant storms that make their way south from the Pacific Northwest during the winter months. This year, however, a warm and dry high-pressure system has lingered above the California coast since November, blocking storms that typically drop early winter precipitation across the state.
Growers across California are among the first to feel the effects of the worst drought the state has seen in almost four decades. Mandated cutbacks in water distributions, along with depletions in available surface water and groundwater, are forcing farmers to dig deeper into their pockets while making tough decisions about crop planting and livestock management.
California ranchers are especially impacted by the lack of rain. Some are paying hundreds of dollars per day for hay and nutritional supplements to feed livestock instead of relying on winter pastures that would usually be green and lush at this time of year. High demand for feed is driving up prices, making this short-term fix a costly endeavor. To make matters worse, wells and ponds are running dry, and some ranchers are hauling costly water to their stock, sometimes in remote rangelands. Unsurprisingly, these costs are forcing some ranchers to sell and cull animals to control their losses.
What responses to the drought does CalCAN think are necessary?
CalCAN was a member of a consortium of agriculture industry leaders that provided input to the California Department of Food and Agriculture on a report outlining climate adaptation strategies for California agriculture (click here for more background). It includes, among other ideas, these water management strategies:
• Utilize new technologies such as soil moisture sensors, tensiometers, and field level water meters to track irrigation practices
• Reduce water run-off through the following management practices:
- Prepare a farm water conservation or irrigation plan
- Install on-farm water storage to capture rainfall
- Install efficient irrigation systems
- Build appropriate drainage systems such as tail water ponds and tile drains
- Increase organic matter in the soil, increase worm activity and enhance soil moisture holding capacity
• Use crop rotation and crop diversification, allow some land to remain fallow, develop crop rotations that are compatible with drip irrigation, and, when feasible, incorporate annual crops into perennial crop systems
• Switch to less water-intensive crops
It is our position that while there are actions individual growers can take to cope with drought and other climate change impacts, this is not just a farmer’s problem. A communal response is needed to maximize and protect the resources we have in times of scarcity. CalCAN believes robust technical and financial assistance for farmers to build soil health and water efficiency, along with sustainable management of watersheds, will help us all through the droughts to come under a changing climate.
You can follow the United States Drought Monitor's information on California here.