The lack of water availability for California agriculture has created a crisis that could continue for years to come and lead to a food supply shortage across the United States. The lack of water not only impacts the communities and environment of California, but has national security and global market implications.
Bob Amarel grows prunes in Yuba City, California, and is also on the Farm Credit West board. Amarel is based in California so he noted that many of his perceptions come from what has happened there. He discussed the sheer quantity of food that is grown in the agricultural region of the state, and the problems that come with cutting water to those regions.
“First of all, you’ll see less food,” he said, and he wouldn’t be surprised if there were international suppliers providing food to Americans.
“You’re going to start seeing the shelves being filled with made in China, or grown in China, grown in Mexico, more so than you are today,” he said. “You’re going to end up getting crop produce, but it’s not going to be anywhere close to the quality and safety that we produce as U.S. producers.”
Ryan Jacobsen is the CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and is the descendant of two farm families going back generations. He is also on the Fresno Irrigation District Board of Directors.
Jacobsen noted that farmers haven’t felt the inflationary rise in prices as much as some consumers, but looking to the future, he said people will experience a shortage of many materials from California, which could lead to price hikes on some of them.
David Guy, the executive director of the Northern California Water Association, said that Costco is concerned about where it will source its food since it tries to use local products.
“We’re hearing from them that they’re just really nervous about where their food is going to come from,” he said, adding that this includes fruits, nuts, and meat.
“2022 was devastating. It just was devastating. It was devastating for everybody,” he said, adding that 600 square miles of Sacramento Valley land was fallowed, or left unplanted, this year. “Just brown dry, nothing grown there.”
He said they need the regulatory environment to let water be used to grow products on the land. “If they don’t, we’re just going to all suffer again like we did this year. It was devastating this year in the Sacramento Valley, on the west side of the Sacramento Valley … we just didn’t grow anything hardly,” he said.
Relationships between growers and international markets are also at risk. Guy pointed out that when a grower doesn’t have items to provide, buyers will look to get their products elsewhere.
The potential food supply crisis is also a national security and food safety concern.
JB Hamby is on the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors and he made the point that “there is no more basic need that Americans need than food,” thus moving food supplies to international sources “puts us in a very vulnerable position.”
“We need to ensure that Americans are fed by food produced in America. And the more we continue to offshore and outsource our food supply puts us in an increasingly vulnerable and weak position if we want to maintain full reliability of food in our grocery stores,” he said.
Around two-thirds of the water that goes into California from the Colorado River is pushed towards agriculture, with the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County using a massive amount of it, CalMatters reported.
Hamby said many major farming areas that grow winter produce for the United States get almost all of their water from the Colorado River, but if Americans want to have full availability of products at the grocery stores, there needs to be irrigation to those crops, specifically during that season.
“What we’re facing right now is a significant situation on the Colorado River, where there’s more demands on the system than there is water flowing in the Colorado River,” he said.
He said Americans should start to look at where their broccoli or romaine lettuce comes from when they go to the grocery stores during the late fall and coming seasons.
“Most likely, over the next few months, almost all of that is going to be grown with Colorado River water. And so if we want to continue to have grocery store shelves that we can depend on to give us the food that we need, we need to ensure that we have water flowing to farms, particularly on the Colorado River,” he noted.
He said the short-term solution will be “some painful reductions across the board, across all sectors. … There’s going to need to be a collective effort and collective action on the part of all users across the Colorado River basin to reduce consumption.”
“However, in the long term, that’s not really a viable solution, and we need to look at some additional measures to encourage some augmentation or new supplies of water to chart our future over the next century,” he added.
Water storage is also a much-needed solution to the crisis.
Amarel said more water storage needs to be created like it was in the 1960s because the water storage plan was made decades ago when the population hadn’t even reached 15 million people.
“Since then, we have grown to 40 million with not a single storage site being built,” he said. “All of those folks need to eat, and they want quality, affordable food every day. How do you do that when the food production base continues to shrink?”
Jacobsen discussed the importance of storage, as well. He says that due to climate change, the Sierra Nevada snowpack could be impacted and is projected to get the same or nearly the same precipitation levels as it has in the past, but it will be more from rainfall than snowpack. The reservoirs in California were constructed to be used for snowpack, so he argued there is more infrastructure needed.
Amarel pointed out the many conservation efforts that have been made in the agriculture industry, namely the transition in his operation to water-saving irrigation. However, he pointed out, this practice still needs enough water storage to be effective.
“We’re saving on the top side and basically not putting money in the bank under the soil. The only way you can make that up is you got to make it up with surface water, which means you got to have adequate storage,” he said.
Farmers are inherently concerned about and careful with the environment. Guy said the drought not only impacted farmers, but entire communities, suppliers, as well as had a devastating effect on the environment.
“The garter snakes,” he explained, giving an example. “There’s 225 species that live in rice land, in a rice field that just have nowhere to live this year so it was really harsh on the environment and we were doing this all for the benefit of salmon and the salmon didn’t do well this year.”
He hopes policymakers will learn from the impacts of this year and not only implement strategies that help salmon, but that send water to the land to help the communities and living creatures that need it.
Guy also said wells are beginning to dry up, which normally means communities use groundwater. This year, however, a lot of communities don’t have groundwater access.
“These are disadvantaged communities that are getting hit not only with the economic impact from the lack of farming, but also because of lack of surface water and groundwater,” he said.
The Biden administration has taken steps to get rid of the Trump administration’s biological opinions that impact protections for endangered fish. Jacobsen said the biological opinions’ review was initiated during the Obama administration, and finished in the Trump administration, and were more data-driven.
Jacobsen said the current situation does not look for “win-win” solutions that help the environment and serve the municipal and agricultural users who depend on the water system, but he believes this is possible.
“I’m really, from my perspective, just looking for more leadership that can see that there needs to be a different path or a different way than what we’ve done the last decade, because our current system is just completely broken,” he pressed.