California 2014 drought could send waves through US commodity markets

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Barack obama, Agriculture, California

California has a vast system of canals and reservoirs to move water from the northern part of the state to the south.
California has a vast system of canals and reservoirs to move water from the northern part of the state to the south.
A looming water crisis in California has led more than 50 California lawmakers to request the declaration of a state drought emergency.   The dire water situation for the upcoming crop year could send ripples through US agricultural supply says the California Water Alliance, an advocacy organization.

Lawmakers including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Congressman and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and state Republican State leaders Bob Huff and Connie Conway – are calling on Governor Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama to address California’s dire water supply conditions by declaring a state drought emergency. The requests, made in three separate letters last week, directly respond to an announcement last month by the California Department of Water Resource that it plans to allocate just 5% of what farms and cities need for 2014.    

“Such an allocation will result in the continued depletion of local groundwater resources, fallowing of thousands of acres of productive farmland, rising food costs, skyrocketing agriculture and urban water rates, and the elimination of countless jobs in our state,”​ wrote the signers of the letter.

Two thirds of the available water in California is located in the northern third of the state, said Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the alliance, but the majority of the state’s population and industrial activity is in the south. The state has long had a highly developed water storage and distribution system to move water to where it is most needed.

Insufficient flexibility

But the alliance contends that onerous environmental regulations have prevented the system from being utilized at maximum efficiency, something that the drought declaration would alleviate.  That flexibility is urgently needed, she said, as effects of the situation are already making themselves felt.

“Some of our reservoirs are at the lowest levels since 1977. Last year we had lettuce at $7 a box and already it is at $23 a box,”​ she said.

The final picture of what water will become available is still coming into focus, she said.  State officials make the final determination in late February, by which time the bulk the winter precipitation in the form of rain and snow has fallen.  But it is already clear that 2014 will be an extremely dry year, Bettencourt said.

The most recent analogous crop year would be 2009, she said. Insufficient water led fallowing of fields, leading to high unemployment in farm counties.

“In 2009 we had the same scenario.  We had a 90% cut in water deliveries.  We saw over 500,000 acres fallowed out in five counties, and the price of tomatoes and other vegetable crops increased,”​ she said.

“Going into this year we expect it to be as bad or worse, with the number of acres fallowed, crops being short and hitting record unemployment again,”​ she said.

Altered crop balance

Bettencourt said California’s persistent water problems are already starting to alter the crop balance in the state.  Growers are fallowing row crop acreages to drive their available water to tree crops to keep them alive. As they do so, they draw upon groundwater reserves, which are rapidly dwindling because of overuse and insufficient recharge because of the drought, she said.

“We are going to run into some groundwater issues as well.  You have a situation in which you have too many straws tapping the same resource,”​ she said.

Balanced approach

The water alliance advocates for a balanced approach to managing water in the state, taking into account the needs of the environment, urban users and agriculture.  As matters stand, environmental needs take precedence, and in severe drought years those needs are topped off whereas other demands go wanting.

“I don’t think you are going to find anyone in California, either in the agricultural or urban sectors, who says that we are not going to protect the environment. But  we cannot conserve our way out of this problem – a 5% water allocation is clearly untenable and will drive up the price of food, rent, construction projects, and it will take up a larger piece of every paycheck,”​ Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt said the drought declaration would only be a first step in a longer-term solution to more equitably balance all the competing needs for water. California’s solution to these problems will be a test case for the rest of nation and elsewhere in the world, too.

“This is going to be the defining issue for our century.  It’s going to be worldwide,”​ she said.

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this drought is for real folks so get prepared

Posted by Troy Abbott,

I live in northern CA and have 2 wells I run off of and this sis for real, we have had hardly any rain.. just a few days worth and one snow, it has been sunny between 60-70f all day everyday and its christmas. there is something wrong and I, living in the mountains of northern california where most if not all socals water comes from. I think there will be a bad year, I will have to buy water from water trucks to take showers and grow my crop

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The current dry spell really is pretty incredible

Posted by altostratus,

2013 will end up being the driest calendar year on record in California, and water year 2013-2014 is getting off to an exceptionally bad start. The large-scale meteorological pattern than has led to this situation is remarkable and extremely persistent, and not going away any time soon. There's an extensive discussion on the California Weather Blog at on this extraordinary dry spell...

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Drought and Impacts Are Real

Posted by Itachee,

The earlier comment says the drought is made up and a drought emergency declaration is unwarranted at this time is absolutely false. Only recently retired after 35 years as a water resources engineer serving and the farmers and water agencies right in the middle of this. Fact is that California's water supply relies on water stored in reservoir from pipe years and the current year's rain and snow. Right now today, reservoir storage up and down the state is on average less than 35% of normal, some even lower, and normally our snow pack would be accumulating rapidly but as of today it is virtually nonexistent. All of which is compounded by dry water sheds from the driest year in over 100 years - almost no significant rain or snow since late December 2012. Here in CA we use monthly updated computer models to forecast water supplies and develop operational plans under different hydrologic scenarios - exceedence forecasting. Problem today is that under all forecasts anything drier a balance of the year with flooding of near biblical proportions won't provide a water supply greater than 40%-45% pin the best case and even i we had normal precip the balance of the year the end result supply still ends up no better than 25% - 30% as the hole from 2 prior years of drought is simply too big and the enviro restrictions without some relief are simply too great.

Having been through two prior droughts I can tell you that putting all the pieces and players together to implement

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