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California could stay dry enough to make food pricier

Dan Weissmann Aug 14, 2014
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In an ongoing drought that’s often described as epic, California’s legislature has approved a proposal to ask voters for more than $7 billion in water-infrastructure projects.

Among those who were pleased:  The California Farm Bureau. Much of California’s water goes to growing crops, and the state produces a big chunk of the nation’s fruit, veggies, and nuts.

The drought has been extremely tough on farmers, and the bad news is:  It’s probably reasonable to expect more of the same, over the very long term. Recent research shows that the last hundred years were probably the long-term equivalent of the rainy season.

“All of our water-management decisions in the West were made based on a really, really wet period, comparatively speaking, looking at the last thousand years of record,” says Richard Heim a meteorologist for the Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate change will amplify any natural drying-out. “It’s going to be hotter and drier in the western United States,” says Heim. “Bad.”

Given that, California agriculture might need a major re-think. “It’s not clear that  we should be growing these kind of crops— vegetables, nut trees, grapes— these kinds of very thirsty crops— in a region like California,” says Yusuke Kuwayama, an economist at Resources for the Future.

He thinks the long-term alternative is probably more-expensive broccoli.

California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger says: OK, but where else are you going to grow tomatoes in December? Nebraska? 

“Our Mediterranean climates are the richest growing regions in the world,” Wenger says. “And by definition, they have good soils, they have temperate climates, and they don’t have water. We have to bring water to them.”  

California currently imports a significant amount of water from the Colorado River.


An animation depicting the past six weeks of drought conditions in the United States. (Graphic courtesy of United States Drought Monitor.)

 

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