Executive Summary for October 26th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Oct. 26, 2015 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Fallowed Cropland Doubled During Drought

NASA and a team of other agencies released new data showing that 1.03 million acres of farmland has been fallowed during California’s ongoing drought. That’s about double the acreage that was fallowed in 2011, which was mostly prior to the start of the current drought.

The fallowed land now represents 15 percent of California’s 7 million acres of farmland.

The data was produced as part of a joint project to use satellite data to continuously track changes in unplanted agricultural acreage during the drought. The project represents the first time state agencies have used satellite data to track drought impacts on agricultural lands in California.

“This remote-sensing application gives us a unique opportunity to see impacts in near real-time during the growing season, over a widespread geographic area,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources, which commissioned the research. “Previously, we had to wait until the following year to see the USDA NASS cropping data tabulation.”

The datasets on land fallowing were derived using thousands of observations collected by multiple satellites over California including Landsat, a joint NASA and USGS mission, as well as NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. The satellite datasets were processed and analyzed by scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, who created time series of monthly field conditions for every field in the state.

NASA’s data confirms the model-based estimates included in a report on economic impacts of the drought released by U.C. Davis in August, which estimated 540,000 acres were fallowed in 2015 due to the drought. In 2015, the largest increases in idle acreage were observed along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno, Kings and Kern counties.

Separately, the Wall Street Journal reports today that even though many California farmers have been able to weather the drought by switching to more valuable crops (such as from corn to tomatoes), their profits have still been constrained by global economic forces.

The bottom line is that food distributors and grocers have been able to make up for shortages in some foods that resulted from the California drought by buying the same product from other states or nations.

According to the Journal: When U.S. farmers cut output, increased imports from Mexico, Chile and elsewhere have helped fill the gap. Average retail prices for fresh fruits are down 3 percent so far this year and vegetables are up only 1 percent, according to federal data. That compares with a nearly 2 percent gain in overall U.S. food prices.

Prices that farmers fetch for fruit have fallen faster than those in the grocery store, exacerbating margin pressures.

“The improvement in pricing has not been anywhere close to the increase in raw input costs and the cost you get stranded with when you have such a large percentage of your land unplanted,” said Steve Hamm, controller for Harris Farms Inc., a grower of tomatoes, lettuce and other crops in the San Joaquin Valley.

Meanwhile, Farm Laborers Struggle

It’s easy to forget that all that farm production happens only because of strong backs and skilled hands. But because of the drought, the farmworkers who tend and harvest all that food have had to travel farther to earn enough to survive, if they’re earning anything at all.

KQED News reports on a new survey of California farmworkers that shows many aren’t getting by lately.

In fact, 92 percent of the indigenous farmworkers surveyed say they’ve had less work or no work because of the drought.

One worker left California for the first time to pick blueberries in Washington state, leaving his family behind for the first time.

Another can’t cover their $600 rent and $119 electricity bill and is making installment payments instead.

“There just isn’t money for everything,” said Maura Lukas, a Mixteca woman who lives with her husband and four children in a small apartment near downtown Fresno. “We don’t have enough to eat. That’s what we really need.”

Others say the working conditions have worsened.

“Because of the lack of jobs, you have to do whatever it takes to stay there, no matter if they don’t give you shade or water or your rights. Your working rights,” said Zenaida Ventura, who is working on the survey.

Commentary of Note: Ban New Wells Until Drought Ends

Jerry Meral has been involved in California water politics and planning longer than a lot of us have been alive. And he’s worked all sides of this question, arguably the most complicated public policy issue the state faces. That includes a lengthy stint as deputy director at the California Department of Water Resources.

So when he comes out with a bold opinion, it’s worth listening to.

“The governor should use his emergency powers under the existing drought,” Meral writes in the Fresno Bee, “to ban new wells in areas where groundwater pumping is causing significant economic damage.”

It’s been widely reported already that excessive groundwater pumping during the drought — and virtually unrestricted drilling of new wells in some areas — has damaged important infrastructure such as roads and bridges. In fact, ironically, it has even damaged other water distribution infrastructure, including water distribution canals and flood-control channels.

Meral emphasizes that he doesn’t make this recommendation lightly, knowing that many farms that rely on groundwater are hurting badly because of the drought.

But he adds: “People seeking to drill new wells are not likely to agree to pay for the damage they cause to roads, levees and other infrastructure by their pumping.”

Top image: In this May 1, 2014 file photo, a rice farmer walks across a dried-up irrigation ditch at his rice farm in Richvale, Calif. A new NASA survey shows the amount of farmland fallowed in California has doubled since 2011. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

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