Waterless California

by Robert Celaschi

September 20, 2015 9:01pm

•  What future can California and the Central Valley have if there are years of drought ahead?

•  Exclusive three-part series begins today

Plentiful, affordable water has been the foundation of Central Valley agriculture for more than a century. But as the current drought reminds us, water isn't always plentiful. And the rising prices for irrigation water make "affordable" a matter of opinion.

In the next few years, supply and price may return to normal. But in the longer term, changes in population, politics and climate may introduce a new normal. Would Central Valley agribusiness survive as we know it? Are other parts of the economy strong enough to pick up the slack?

First, let's look at how we got where we are today.

Central Valley agriculture didn't always depend on irrigation. In the late 19th century, California's main crop was wheat. Farmers simply planted it in the fall, and let the rainy season take care of the rest.

But that era didn't last long as growers found ways to bring huge amounts of water up from the ground and down from the mountains.

In 1869, irrigation reached less than 100,000 acres of California farmland. Twenty years later the figure had grown to more than 1 million acres, and the crop mix had expanded. At the end of World War I California had more than 4 million acres under irrigation. In the 1950s the total passed 7 million acres.

An acre of cropland in the Central Valley needs as much water in a year as two to four homes, according to the Water Association of Kern County. The current drought has severely restricted the volume of irrigation water that can be delivered, and the price shot up by about 150 percent just from 2013 to 2014.

There's also a lot more competition for water. Since 1980, the Central Valley's population has nearly doubled to 3.8 million people, according to the U.S. Interior Department. The population is expected to reach 6 million by 2020.

If agriculture gets less water in the years ahead, acreage would have to shrink. In fact, that's already happening.

"If you look at the data, there's already almost a million acres less farmed in the Valley than there was 20 years ago. Yet the ag economy is bigger," says Jeff Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific.

Another million acres could come out of production in the next 25 years, and ag products might still end up being worth more, he says.

"The impacts will vary substantially from property to property. Some well-located farmland should have access to inexpensive water for a very long time, even if conditions continue to dry with climate change," Mr. Michael says. "Other locations are feeling the pinch now. They may have weaker water rights and less access to groundwater."

How many acres could be replaced? In one nearby part of California, agriculture disappeared entirely as the economy surged ahead. That land once was known the Valley of Heart's Delight. Today we call it Silicon Valley.

NEXT: Mixed prospects

About the writer

Robert Celaschi is a veteran business news writer and editor. His articles have appeared in the Sacramento Business Journal, Comstocks, the San Jose Business Journal and many more publications.

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