Climate Change and the Future of Agriculture in California

It has been well established in this blog that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the predominate source of water for Southern Californian municipalities and industry, as well as for the large agribusinesses located in the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley.

But what happens in times of drought, and how will Climate Change affect the ability for continued water delivery to these drier regions of Southern California; what will happen to California’s robust agriculture business if the Sierra Nevada snowpack diminishes during prolonged climate disruptions?  How will California be able to provide water to individuals and industry during times of prolonged drought?

An irrigation ditch on a California farm

These very questions and more are discussed in a video produced by the University of California’s Gianni Foundation for Agricultural Economics, titled: Effects of Climate Change on California’s Water Supply.  The panel participants are Dr. David Sunding of UC Berkeley, Dr. Richard Howitt of UC Davis, and Dr. Ariel Dinar of UC Riverside.

Agriculture in California will need to drastically revolutionize either its water delivery system to its crops, downsize the acreage that is currently farmed, or discontinue the production of water intensive food sources.  This point could not be more evident, considering that agribusiness uses upwards of 80% of the water in state of California, it should not come as any surprise that agriculture production could be hit the hardest during times of extreme drought; forcing agribusiness into more sustainable practices as a result of the fluctuating water supply captured from the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In fact, Dr. Howitt of UC Davis’ department of Agricultural and Resource Economics clearly states that California’s agricultural industry will “need to downsize in water use, and irrigated acres.  To put it bluntly, over a million acres of currently irrigated crops will be coming out of production” as a result of projected climate induced water shortages.


Graphic showing a 5-year span that brought extreme drought to much of California

In the drought of 2011 to 2015, the state of California discontinued water deliveries to many agricultural areas, however I didn’t realize that so many farmers could be in danger of losing their business altogether because of impending water restrictions.  I’ve learned through researching the topic of water in California, that a large number of farmers could lose their livelihood, I’ve learned that not only is it a matter of people having water to use in their homes, but the diversity of agricultural business in the state could suffer if small-scale farmers are forced out of business.

Although what Dr. Howitt speaks about may seem like an unwelcome and harsh reality for many small-scale farmers, he is optimistic that through the reduction of agriculture’s water footprint, farming can be more sustainably managed through crop rotation and fertility enhancement which can lead to an increase in not only employment, but also an increase of revenue.

Other important points that the professors on the panel make is that since agriculture uses upwards of 80% of California’s water demand, the agricultural industry will be required to change their water demands most drastically.  As a comparison, municipalities in Southern California have been successful at conserving water, as Dr. Howitt states, and that it is important to remember that only 20% of water demands in California are from households and municipalities.

The new de-salination plant in San Diego County

But more to the point, Southern California urban agencies have successfully implemented more diverse water portfolios, such as water recycling, the construction of a desalination plant in San Diego County – while agricultural demands have no such plans in place to decrease its water usage.  As professor Sundig states it, “Agriculture is more stable in its demands, but less elastic, while urban areas are an increasing demand” considering population growth, but that with the depletion of water caused by Climate Change, agriculture may need to downsize.



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