A section of Lake Oroville is nearly dry on Aug. 19, in Oroville, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third year, water levels in the state’s lakes and reservoirs is reaching historic lows. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
August 29

Richard Howitt is a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis. Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis.

California is experiencing its third-worst drought in 106 years, resulting in idled cropland and soaring water prices. Since the state produces almost 70 percent of the nation’s top 25 fruit, nut and vegetable crops, California’s pain could soon hit the rest of the country through higher food prices. Will conservation and new water-saving technologies be enough to weather this dry period? Let’s consider five myths about the California drought.

1. California knows how to manage droughts.

California is lurching through this drought like a man who thinks he is so rich he doesn’t have to balance his checkbook. Much of the state’s agriculture is relying on unmonitored pumping of more groundwater from aquifers, a backup source of water during droughts. This could hurt the sustainability of crops in future droughts, since the aquifers will be threatened if there is not enough replenishment in wetter years. No one in California knows exactly how much water is being drawn from the state’s aquifers, because the pumping of underground water is not measured or recorded by state or federal agencies, or by any private party. However, two bills are pending in the state legislature that could bring some transparency and logic to the use of underground water.

The other way California adjusts to drought is by buying and selling water on an informal market. This year, some farmers who grow lower-valued crops are fallowing them and selling their water to keep orchards alive. But there is no central source of information on the prices and quantities of water that is for sale, so farmers with urgent needs to water trees and vines must seek out farmers with water available who might be willing to fallow their crops. This lack of transparency leads to high prices and farmers missing out on water because they’re unaware of the current price and where water might be available.

One exception to this myth is urban Southern California, where a diverse water supply, some wastewater reuse, judicious water storage and effective conservation measures have allowed many water districts to take the drought in stride.

2. The drought will sharply increase food prices.

Overall, the drought has reduced surface water supplies in California by one-third. However, increases in pumping underground water will make up three-quarters of this shortfall. When coupled with some shifting of crops, this will be sufficient to supply most fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Lost production will be mostly in commodities such as wheat, cotton and corn that can be grown elsewhere. For now, we do not expect more than a 5 to 10 percent increase in specialty food prices.

Of course, this masks the significant pockets of poverty and pain that farmers, farmworkers and agricultural communities are feeling. A recent UC Davis study predicts that idling cropland will eliminate 17,000 jobs. Unemployment will be most severe in some of California’s poorest regions. Many farmers have had to cut back on annual crops, and in some cases they’ve lost valuable orchards. Farmers sometimes find themselves spending all their profits just to buy water to keep their trees alive.

3. Conservation and technology are the answers.

Managing drought by improving technology is part of the solution, but it isn’t enough. New technology, such as low-flow toilets and water-saving appliances, plus personal conservation efforts, such as reducing the watering of lawns, has produced long-term declines in per capita water consumption in California’s cities. Some say such reductions in water use, along with new supply technologies, such as ocean desalination and wastewater reuse, can make California drought-proof. Although such efforts can improve water conditions, they’re very expensive and insufficient alone.

And agricultural conservation does not always yield new water because the water saved often goes to refill groundwater basins or rivers. Studies from around the world consistently show that increased efficiency in agricultural irrigation often does not decrease net water use. Urban conservation is more effective. Since the early 1990s, reductions in per capita water use have kept California’s total urban use steady, despite the addition of 7 million new residents. However, further improvements in net water use will be harder to achieve.

4. An El Niño climate next year would solve the problem.

Rainfall in the Western United States is driven by variable temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Many people hold out hope for an El Niño year — when warmer water off the Pacific Coast of South America often causes more rain in the Southwestern United States — to stop the drought. While 2015 could be an El Niño year, bringing rainfall to dry parts of Southern California, it would not be enough. Historical statistics show that El Niño years are unlikely to replenish the areas that supply the majority of California’s water.

The essential buffer against droughts in California is the state’s supply of underground water, which is being seriously depleted this year. Over the past century, California has drawn down many of its aquifers by an average of about 20 feet of water. This over-pumping is costly because of the energy it requires, but more seriously, it reduces the groundwater available to buffer future droughts. And in some places, over-pumping increases the salinity of underground water, reducing crop yields or making the groundwater unsuitable for use. In many areas, several years of increased rain and decreased pumping are likely to be needed to replenish the state’s water supply.

California will remain susceptible to droughts and will become more susceptible until groundwater is more sustainably managed.

5. The drought is a problem only for the West.

California stocks the country’s salad bars, snack trays and grocery stores with produce, nuts and cheese. While the pain of the drought will stay in California in 2014, if 2015 is another dry or drought year, the effects will be felt nationwide. Certain fruits and vegetables might become scarce, and their prices will rise. This year, many farming and urban water districts are using up reserve stocks to maintain deliveries, and these will be depleted next year if the state doesn’t get more rain.

In addition, the falling levels of underground water will result in 5 to 10 percent of the wells in some regions going dry. In turn, a much larger area of crops and orchards will go out of production or be lost entirely as water supplies will be concentrated on just keeping trees alive, not watering them enough to produce full crop yields.

While the cost of a balanced diet is already a problem for many income groups, a continuation of the California drought would make better nutrition harder to afford across the whole country.

outlook@washpost.com

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