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Study highlights drought's severe impact on ag, economy
drought report pic
California drought has hit the Central Valley hard. Pictured here are dry fields and bare trees at Panoche Road on Feb. 5 near San Joaquin County. - photo by GREGORY URQUIAGA/UC Davis

"Pray for Rain" signs are a common sight on the country roads in Turlock and around the region, a visual reminder of local farmers' fears about the continued lack of precipitation. Although many are aware that California is in the midst of a drought — the third most severe on record — the consequences have not yet been fully realized here locally.  A new report from the University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, however, paints a gruesome picture that cannot be ignored.

"Overall...we lose about $2.2 billion worth of revenues, but what really hurts is we're also losing 17,000 jobs...and they're from a sector of the population who have the least ability to roll with the punches," said the report's lead author Richard Howitt.

The study found the Central Valley has been the hardest hit, with projected losses of $810 million, or 2.3 percent, in crop revenue; $203 million in dairy and livestock value; and $453 million in additional well-pumping costs. Also, 428,000 acres, or 5 percent, of irrigated cropland is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California due to the drought.

“This study just confirms what I see every day in my district,” said U.S. Representative Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) . “The Central Valley is bearing the brunt of the drought. We must change the regulations coming from Sacramento and Washington bureaucrats that worsen the effects of this devastating drought on our agricultural community.

“It’s crucial that we come together with immediate, lasting solutions for increased storage and increased water supplies to see a permanent solution for our Valley farmers signed into law this year.”

While the costs to agriculture are severe, the long-term damage to the state's groundwater resources have the researchers really worried.

Failure to replenish groundwater in wet years continues to reduce groundwater availability to sustain agriculture during drought — particularly more profitable permanent crops, like almonds and grapes — a situation Howitt called a “slow-moving train wreck.”

 “A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” said Howitt, a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics. “We’re acting like the super rich who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”

The best way to manage the state's water resources is an ongoing debate with legislators and stakeholders.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for “serious groundwater management” at the state level and allocated $4.3 million in the 2014-15 Budget for the State Water Resources Control Board to enforce drought-related water rights and water curtailment actions.

At a public groundwater forum  held in Turlock in April, State Water Resources Control Board member Dorene D’Adamo emphasized that policy makers are helping local entities develop groundwater management programs with some state assistance as part of the draft Water Action Plan.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said current state regulations don’t consider use of surface water to replenish groundwater as a beneficial use, which complicates the ability to recharge underground aquifers.

 “Rather than seizing on the drought to impose a rushed and poorly designed set of so-called groundwater reforms, we should see the drought as a prediction of what California will continue to experience if we don’t improve our water storage system,” Wegner said. “Otherwise, we’re destined not only to repeat, but to increase losses suffered by California farmers, their employees and the millions who depend on them for nutritious, local food, and to ensure water shortages that harm every resident and industry in our state.”