July 13th, 2016


Kara J. Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University

President and Co-founder, Pacific Institute

Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture


According to a recent study conducted by NASA and Cornell and Columbia universities, drier days are yet to come. In fact, they warn, the southwest region of the United States could be headed into a megadrought lasting several decades. That spells trouble for California’s agribusinesses, which are already seeing losses as we head into our fifth year of drought.

Some cheered the rainstorms of the past winter, hoping they heralded an end to the dry spell. But Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute says that, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

“We didn't have a wet year, actually,” Gleick tells the Climate One audience. “To be specific, we sort of had an average year. And it's been so long since we've had an average year that everybody kind of got excited.”

What does that mean for California’s agribusinesses? Karen Ross, who monitors the state’s crops for the Department of Food and Agriculture, reports that “so far, food prices have remained fairly stable.” But, she warns, “If we continue to have these kinds of situations and we grow less and less, then the things that we specialize in California could in fact see increased food prices at the grocery store.”

With California’s water becoming an ever-more precious resource, many question whether the state’s farmers are using more than their share. Ross says that it’s about more than just almonds and alfalfa.

“Agriculture is like a renewable resource,” Ross maintains. “Every year we plant, we nurture, we harvest – that's creating economic activity” that benefits California’s economy. Insurance, finance, and marketing are just a few of the industries that rely on the food grown here, she adds – not to mention entertainment and tourism.

“Twenty-five percent of the hundred billion dollars that’s spent by tourists in our state every year is going specifically to culinary tourism – restaurants, wine tasting and all those other fun types of activities.”

Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences doesn’t disagree.

“I think the real challenge that we’re seeing in this drought is that we have a lot of really worthwhile demands on our water,” he says. But in the context of a changing climate, with drought conditions becoming increasingly more frequent, Diffenbaugh asks, “how do we manage those different priorities in a way that manages those climate risks and meets the needs of the people and ecosystems?”

The agricultural sector has done well so far, says Gleick, in part because of its reliance on groundwater. California has been drawing from its bank of groundwater to the tune of six million acre feet – an amount that is unsustainable.

“We’re seeing groundwater levels drop,” Gleick reports. “We’re seeing subsidence in the Central Valley, in the southern San Joaquin. That can’t continue.”

“So the long-term question is, how are we going to balance all of the things we want to do with water, with how much water we have?”

“We will see very hard decisions being made that will affect people's livelihoods,” Ross acknowledges. “But it comes down to the value of water for the value it brings to us. And we all have a role to play in using every drop as efficiently as we possibly can.”

Solutions like California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the Water Bond have already been put into action to try to alleviate the problem of an over-thirsty state.

California’s period of long-term warming mirrors overall global warming conditions, says Diffenbaugh.

“We’re getting a warm year, pretty much year after year,” he reports. “Eighty percent of the years in the last two decades have been warmer than the long-term average.” That, combined with a similar rise in low-precipitation years, means drought is inevitable. “And that’s what we’re likely to see going forward into the future more and more.”

The biggest takeaway, says Diffenbaugh, is that it’s time for us to acknowledge and accept our newer, drier California – and make major adjustments for the future.

“We have a water rights system that’s more than a century old,” he says. Water infrastructure and management are equally antiquated, he continues.

“And we’re in a new climate – it's already here. It’s going to intensify as global warming continues. And if we want to have a water system that's prepared for the climate of the present and the climate of the future, then we need to acknowledge that we’re in the new climate. We don't have the climate from a century or half-century ago.”


Related Links:

Washington Post: Megadrought will grip U.S. in coming decades

KQED: California is sinking, and it’s getting worse

USGS: California Drought

California Drought Manager

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

Proposition 1, Water Bond (2014)

Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography: Ed Ritger

This program was generously underwritten by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.