California suffered its fourth year of drought in 2015, prompting the federal government to deliver no water to its Central Valley Project farm customers and the state to deliver 20 percent of contracted water to farmers.  Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals. Annual farm sales of about $43 billion account for less than two percent of the state's $2 trillion GDP.

Governor Jerry Brown in April 2015 ordered urban water districts to reduce water consumption through incentives and fines by 25 percent in 2015. The State Water Resources Board enforces the water reduction plan via local water districts. Brown exempted agriculture from the cuts, prompting criticism. One commodity spotlighted was almonds, since the state's 900,000 acres require about four-acre feet of water per acre, twice as much as cotton, grapes or tomatoes.

With some saying that a gallon of water is required to produce each almond, and with California producing 80 percent of the world's almonds worth $6.5 billion in 2014, the state is essentially exporting its water through almonds. Many of the state's almonds are produced by agribusinesses such as Paramount Farms, owned by Roll International, and investors such as the pension fund TIAA-CREF. Almond farmers say that their orchards cover 12 percent of California's irrigated farm land and use eight percent of irrigation water, showing the efficiency of irrigation methods.

In a normal year, a third of the water used by California agriculture is pumped from underground. In 2015, about three-fourths of the total water used is expected to be groundwater.

Farmers are overdrafting groundwater to compensate for the lack of surface water. For example, the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin is being overdrafted by up to 300,000 acre feet a year to irrigate lettuce and other vegetables in the U.S. salad bowl. Salinas farmers have become more efficient in water use, reducing groundwater usage from over 600,000 acre feet in the 1970s to less than 500,000 acre feet today despite increased production, but there has been seawater intrusion as farmers pump more water than is replenished during winter rains.

Some 4,000 farmers in the Delta region of California agreed to reduce their water usage by 25 percent in 2015 in exchange for a promise that the state will not seek more water reductions. Many Delta farmers grow row crops such as corn, making it easier for them to fallow land than farmers with perennial crops such as nut trees.

In mid-June 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board announced that water rights after 1903 would be curbed in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river watersheds.

This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in July 2015.


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