Farmers in the Sacramento Valley face unprecedented cuts to their water allocations as California enters its third year of consecutive drought. California’s water reserves typically replenish during the rainy season, with 75 percent of annual precipitation falling between November and March. With the driest January through March in over a century, California’s major reservoirs are well below historic levels, and as of May of 2022 the overwhelming majority of the state is in severe or extreme drought.
Water allocation cuts are new for the Western Sacramento Valley, which has had nearly guaranteed access to water since a 1964 agreement with the federal government. Under the agreement, the federal government manages the Central Valley Project, one of the largest water reservoir systems on Earth. Historically, about 150 agricultural businesses with water rights in the area have been guaranteed at least 75% of their normal supply in dry years, but reserves at Lake Shasta have fallen so low that negotiations this year have resulted in that 75% allocation cut to a mere 18%, with less senior rights holders getting nothing at all.
The economic effects of this cutback will be severe. Josh Davy, cattle rancher in the Sacramento Valley, expects to lose $120,000 this year, and sustained losses of that kind could drive him out of business. “If this is a one-time fluke, I’ll suck it up and be fine. But I don’t have another year in me, Davy said.
California’s agricultural sector is the largest in the country, employing roughly 420,000 people, or ⅓ of all farm workers in the US, or roughly 420,000 people. The sector has already taken a $1.2 billion hit as a result of the drought, with more losses expected.
The effect on staple crops that feed the world could also be considerable: California is a major supplier of US rice, and most of that rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley. Rice, a very water intensive crop, is the staple food of more than 3.5 billion people in the world.
Water suppliers in Sacramento Valley estimate that 370,000 acres of farmland will be left fallow this year due to the drought. Matthew Garcia, a rice farmer in the valley who owns 420 acres, has left his field fallow this year due to lack of water. “Without the water, we have dirt. It’s basically worthless,” Garcia said. “It’s very depressing … If this drought sustains, I don’t know how long [crop] insurance is going to last. And then at what point do you throw in the towel? … There’s a teetering point somewhere. Everybody’s is different. I don’t know where mine is yet.”
With the war in Ukraine disrupting the production of grain, petroleum, and petroleum-based fertilizers, a major decline in output for another staple crop could drive up food prices even further in the near future. The rising cost of food has been a major source of inflationary pressure in the US, with average food prices rising 8.8% in the last year.
In the meantime, environmental activists have been pushing for more diversion of water reserves into natural rivers and streams to protect the endangered chinook salmon and other species, whose annual spawning will be disrupted if the average water temperature gets too high and water levels get too low. In the last century or so scientists estimate that 90% of the state’s wetlands have been drained, and water supplies for various wildlife refuges across the state are projected to fall to less than half of their normal levels.
With the ongoing drought, water supplies are reaching critical levels, and the state is being forced to choose between protecting a collapsing environment, or protecting the livelihood of the state’s farmers. As drought conditions worsen in the summer, the only thing that’s certain is Californians are in for a season of drought and desperation.
Michael Whittaker is a commentator and analyst for The California Review focused on national and California affairs. Whittaker was previously a contributor at both the Stanford Review and the Stanford Daily.