2015 Drought's Direct Costs to California Agriculture: $1.84 billion

Last Updated by Jim Trotter on

Although California is in the fourth year of punishing drought – with the last two years being among the hottest and driest on record – a new analysis by the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Sciences shows surprising resilience in the state’s agricultural economy to go along with eye-popping losses.

Losses to California agriculture in four years of sustained drought reach to the billions of dollars. A new study defines the numbers.

“Groundwater substitution has again greatly reduced crop fallowing and job losses. Water trading and operational flexibility also have significantly reduced the costs of the drought, and preservation of the most valuable crops has helped buffer economic impacts,” the report states. Some regions of the state without groundwater resources have suffered more substantially, the analysis found. Emphasis has been placed on preserving higher-value crops, and the acceptance of higher prices by consumers has generally supported that strategy. Highlights of the study:

  • The drought in 2015 will result in a 8.7 million acre-foot reduction in surface water available to agriculture. (An acre foot is about 325,851 U.S. gallons, or enough to sustain a household of four for a year.)
  • This surface water loss will be partially replaced by increasing groundwater pumping by 6 million acre-feet, at a cost of $590 million.
  • The resulting net water shortage of 2.7 million acre-feet will cause losses of $900 million in crop revenue and $350 million in dairy and other livestock value.
  • Direct costs to agriculture total $1.84 billion.
  • The total statewide economic cost is $2.74 billion, with a total loss of 21,000 seasonal and part-time jobs.

“The heavy reliance on groundwater comes at ever-increasing energy costs (for pumping and distribution) and diminishes reserves for future droughts,” the analysis stated. “If a drought of this intensity persists beyond 2015, California’s agricultural production and employment will continue to erode” wrote Josué Medellín-Azuara, a co-author of the study. California is the nation’s most populous and most agriculturally productive state, of course. And it is one of seven signatory states t0 the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Drought stress on the river, with its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, have been well documented. After suffering severe, prolonged drought until this year, conditions have been better for Colorado statewide in 2015. Not true for California and much of the rest of the West. Meanwhile, climatologists are keeping a sharp on a strong El Niño pattern developing in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño can bring heavy rain to the California coast and can dump snow on Colorado’s Front Range. NOAA is keeping tabs.

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