Calif. Farmers Face Harsh Realities In Drought-Stricken Central Valley

Originally published on April 9, 2015 7:34 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Well, in addition to lawns and flowers, the drought is threatening one of the most important agricultural regions in the country; that's California's Central Valley. To take a closer look at the realities farmers face, we turned to Sam Sandoval. He's an expert in water resource management at the University of California, Davis. Good morning.

SAM SANDOVAL: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we start with you telling us exactly what crops are grown in the Central Valley?

SANDOVAL: It goes from alfalfa, almonds, pistachios, rice, corn, cotton, tomato, garlic, dried beans, sugar beets, sunflower, potatoes and so on.

MONTAGNE: It really is the farmers market of the country.

SANDOVAL: Yeah, we really produce 50 percent of most of the produce and 90 percent of the grapes, broccoli, almonds and walnuts.

MONTAGNE: And give us the range of the amount of water that's needed for these different crops because, for instance, I understand cotton to need quite a bit of water.

SANDOVAL: Yes, I mean, one walnut is about five gallons, one pistachio about one gallon of water or one almond, one gallon. A pound of blueberries uses 48 gallons.

MONTAGNE: Forty-eight gallons?

SANDOVAL: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: That's stunning.

SANDOVAL: Yes. This is kind of the water footprint, and I think that is the main issue here.

MONTAGNE: What has been, traditionally, the source of all of the water that it takes to grow these crops?

SANDOVAL: Yeah, there are three main sources - surface water, and that we can break it into water in rivers and the snowpack. And when it melts, it goes into the reservoirs, and then when it enters the valley, it infiltrates into the ground into the aquifers, and that is the other large source of water.

MONTAGNE: And the aquifers are shrinking pretty dramatically.

SANDOVAL: Mhmm.

MONTAGNE: And what does that leave - I mean, what is the percentage of water that farmers now have to use compared to what they have traditionally been able to use?

SANDOVAL: They are right now in the order of 50, perhaps 40 percent of what they used to have.

MONTAGNE: That's in some parts of California. You're talking much less water. You're talking some farmers left with no water.

SANDOVAL: That is correct. I mean, close to Fresno, there are farmers that because of the very few snow and the aquifers, they are losing their investment.

MONTAGNE: What does this add up to then in terms of damage to the agriculture industry?

SANDOVAL: Yeah, the drought impact of the 2014 drought, it was 2.2 billion - the total economic cost of the drought. The crop revenue lost, the livestock and dairy revenue lost and total job losses are estimated that will be in the order of 15 to 17,000 people.

MONTAGNE: How long before there is really severe damage to the agriculture industry if the drought goes on?

SANDOVAL: There is already severe damage. The citrus, the almonds, the apple trees - those orchards, their production will not come back to normal in two or three years, if ever.

MONTAGNE: Is there any way to know how long it would take for water levels to come back to something that resembles what has been seen over the last few decades? You know, how long does it, say, take to replenish an aquifer?

SANDOVAL: It's in the order of decades. The replenishment of the aquifer will not be as quick as we want.

MONTAGNE: Sam Sandoval teaches water resource management at UC Davis. Thank you very much for joining us.

SANDOVAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.