California’s Drought Expected to Worsen in 2022

Low levels of winter precipitation mean that reservoirs and groundwater sources will not be replenished. Officials said farmers will need to adapt.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jun. 1, 2022 12:32 UTC

The recent rain show­ers will not solve the long-last­ing drought that has put most of California under severe water stress.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), the multi-year megadrought affect­ing much of the west­ern United States has made 2020 and 2021 the worst two-year period in decades.

If it does not rain or snow in the win­ter, that’s it. We kind of have one sea­son… This year, it didn’t hap­pen.- Cary Fox, United States Bureau of Reclamation

The result has been reduced water avail­abil­ity, lower crop yields and ris­ing costs for farm­ers. The PPIC fore­casts also show that in 2022 things are poised to get even worse.

The PPIC experts believe that cli­mate change is the cause of the increas­ingly dra­matic swings between dry and wet con­di­tions,” also known as pre­cip­i­ta­tion whiplash.” The last two years have been close to the dri­est since records began in 1895, sec­ond only to the 1976 to 1977 drought.

See Also:Chile’s Ongoing Drought Leads to Water Rationing in Santiago

On top of this, PPIC esti­mates that unusu­ally warm tem­per­a­tures in 2021, nearly 3.5 ºF (1.9 ºC) above the 20th-cen­tury aver­age, cre­ated an addi­tional three to four inches of evap­o­ra­tive demand, or about an 8 per­cent increase in crop water demands.”

In 2021, the eco­nomic impact of the drought was con­sid­ered mod­est, with the excep­tion of Sacramento and the North Coast regions. Still, in 2022, the PPIC fore­casts dry con­di­tions to per­sist and the eco­nomic bur­den for farm­ing activ­i­ties to increase.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, almost 96 per­cent of California is now under severe drought con­di­tions, which means that the wild­fire sea­son is longer and trees are under stress.

The severe drought has become extreme in about 47 per­cent of the state. In such con­di­tions, reser­voirs run very low, hydropower is affected and water avail­abil­ity becomes insuf­fi­cient for agri­cul­ture.

Cary Fox of the United States Bureau of Reclamation told Wired mag­a­zine that California power plants’ reser­voirs are run­ning low. As a result, instal­la­tions such as Shasta Powerplant will be able to pro­duce around half of their full poten­tial up to next fall, with rain­fall expected to replen­ish the reser­voirs only next win­ter.

If it does not rain or snow in the win­ter, that’s it. We kind of have one sea­son… This year, it didn’t hap­pen,” Fox said.

The lat­est PPIC pol­icy brief under­lined how California agri­cul­ture relies heav­ily on irri­ga­tion and how low water avail­abil­ity might be a game-changer even if irri­ga­tion effi­ciency has gen­er­ally improved.

Climatic and reg­u­la­tory con­straints have lim­ited sur­face water in recent decades,” the pol­icy brief said. Chronic over­pump­ing of ground­wa­ter has dried up wells and dam­aged infra­struc­ture, prompt­ing the enact­ment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014.”

In 2021, California farms expe­ri­enced a reduced sur­face water deliv­ery due to low stor­age lev­els and water rights cur­tail­ments, with allo­ca­tions from the Central Valley Project and State Water Project dropped to zero for some grow­ers.”

According to the PPIC, total deliv­er­ies for Central Valley and North Coast farms dropped by about 5.5 mil­lion acre-feet (680,000 hectare-meters) in 2021, 41 per­cent below the 2002 to 2016 aver­age.

See Also:Climate Change Is Making Droughts More Frequent and Severe

That sit­u­a­tion led many farm­ers to pump more water, even though there were insuf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties to com­pen­sate. While not all farm­ers have ground­wa­ter access, those who did still faced ris­ing pro­duc­tion costs, up to $184 mil­lion (€175 mil­lion) in higher energy bills due to pump­ing.

The effects of reduced water avail­abil­ity on farm­ing include leav­ing some irri­gated crop­land unplanted and focus­ing only on highly prof­itable crops. Other irri­gated lands were also idled to sell that water to other users.

As hap­pens in many other parts of the world, local farm­ers are also get­ting used to deficit irri­ga­tion, which con­sists of adjust­ing to reduced water vol­umes while opti­miz­ing yields. Still, the PPIC experts warned that cur­tailed irri­ga­tion can lower crop yields.”

An exam­ple is the Russian River Basin, where wild­fires and reduced irri­ga­tion caused a 24 per­cent drop in rev­enue.

Across impacted regions, crop rev­enue losses and increased pump­ing costs were esti­mated at $1.1 bil­lion (€1.05 bil­lion), with roughly 8,700 full- and part-time jobs lost,” the PPIC said.

Including other parts of the econ­omy that have devel­oped around the state’s agri­cul­ture sec­tor, such as goods pro­duc­tion and ser­vices, the PPIC esti­mates $1.7 bil­lion (€1.6 bil­lion) in rev­enue losses due to drought, with 14,600 jobs lost.

Given this sce­nario, the PPIC’s pol­icy brief pro­posed sev­eral mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies, such as lim­it­ing pump­ing while plan­ning new invest­ments in mod­ern­iza­tion, reduc­ing farm depen­dence on water, build­ing on flex­i­bil­ity in water demand dur­ing drought, facil­i­tat­ing water trad­ing and improv­ing water stor­age.

The PPIC empha­sized how these mea­sures should be con­sid­ered essen­tial given that California’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor gen­er­ates more than $50 bil­lion (€48 bil­lion) in rev­enue yearly while also employ­ing more than 420,000 peo­ple.


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