Executive Summary for December 14th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Dec. 14, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

California Farm Receipts Soar. But Profits … ?

California farmers have been hit hard by the drought. And the San Joaquin Valley, dependent on imported water supplies and dwindling groundwater, has been the poster child for farm trouble during the drought.

Yet some statistics show that even the San Joaquin Valley is doing well in the drought.

Federal crop reports show that gross farm receipts reached a record $39.5 billion in 2014, up $4.3 billion or a whopping 12 percent compared to 2013, according to the Stockton Record. Statewide, farm receipts increased 5 percent.

The increases were attributed to strong prices for a number of farm products.

But those numbers aren’t the full story.

Production expenses on farms also increased 10 percent statewide, resulting in a decline in profits of 6 percent.

“To say that the industry hasn’t been hurt is really not supported by the facts at all,” said Richard Howitt, an economist at U.C. Davis.

Howitt helped write a report earlier this year that estimated the drought in 2015 meant more than 500,000 acres of farmland were unused and cost farmers $1.8 billion in lost revenue and higher costs for water.

The numbers for the present year are likely to be very different, said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. That’s because many prices for farm products were sharply lower this year, including milk, cattle and walnuts.

“We’re going to see receipts drop precipitously,” Wenger said.

Campaign Links Water Waste and Wildlife

A new water-conservation campaign by the Center for Biological Diversity does something new: It directly links individual water conservation efforts with benefits to wildlife.

The website campaign, called “Don’t Be A Drip,” tells visitors how their water waste can be harmful to wildlife and also domestic (farm) animals, and how simple conservation acts can reduce that harm.

For example, it notes that in San Bernardino County, average water daily consumption is 128 gallons per person, which has harmful effects on native species including steelhead trout and the the Arroyo toad. It also emphasizes that the county is dependent, in part, on water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, more than 400 miles (650km) away, which is home to 20 endangered species.

The campaign urges people to “banish the water hog from your home” by using the dishwasher instead of handwashing, replacing fixtures with low-flow appliances and even washing clothes less often (as recently noted by WaterDeeply).

It also urges visitors to reduce meat in their diets, noting that it takes about 100 times more water to produce a beef burger than a veggie burger, which has consequences for endangered species like the San Joaquin kit fox.

Interestingly, the campaign is supported by Levi Strauss & Co., and one of its messages is to ‘wash jeans after every 10 wears, instead of every 2,” which can save 224 gallons of water per year.

The campaign is national, and includes rankings of every state based on per capita water consumption. The worst? Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Arizona.

The Center for Biological Diversity is known as a rather aggressive environmental group that doesn’t hesitate to take its battles into the courtroom. So its message may not appeal to everyone. Yet it is to be commended for making some connections between water use and wildlife that others have been unwilling to make.

Measuring the Collapse: Land Subsidence

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this week will be measuring land subsidence throughout the San Joaquin Valley, a problem caused by excessive groundwater pumping.

Reclamation has been conducting the surveys twice a year since 2011, although the problem has been going on for decades. In fact, it was the subsidence problem that originally played a big role in the construction of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project: It was felt that by importing river water from Northern California, San Joaquin Valley farmers would pump less groundwater.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Farming in the region only expanded with the arrival of higher-quality imported water. It also expanded into thirstier crops, starting with cotton, and transitioning more recently to crops like almonds.

As a result, subsidence remains a huge problem. When groundwater is pumped out of aquifers in large volumes over a short time, it causes soil layers to collapse. This ripples up to the surface level, where subsidence is buckling the very canal infrastructure that brings in that imported water, turning roadways into roller-coaster rides and also reducing the long-term holding capacity of groundwater aquifers.

The subsidence monitoring this week involves five surveyors spanning out across a 4,000-square-mile (10,000-square-kilometer) area of the San Joaquin Valley to visit 73 control points. The work is part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, aimed in part at assessing how river restoration affects land elevation and vice versa.

Top image: Aerial view of the California Aqueduct, one of the major canals that brings imported water to farms in the San Joaquin Valley. (MavensNotebook.com)

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