ALTHOUGH recent rainfall was welcomed in parts of California, the Golden State reached a benchmark in the newly released U.S. Drought Monitor, which showed 9% of the state covered in drought (Map).
As 2013 came to a close, many areas of California recorded their driest year in history, and conditions are not improving so far in 2014, leaving the state's farmers and ranchers facing many challenges to raising crops and livestock.
Essentially, California has entered its third consecutive year of drought, and the water systems, by design, are equipped to sustain two to three of years of drought conditions with little impact, Dr. Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources, told Feedstuffs.
The drought conditions intensified for the state after winter rains failed to fall in November through last month.
"California started into our January time frame with very low reservoir levels and also very low moisture levels in our soils," Parker said.
Unlike in normal years, zero sprouting had occurred across the foothills in December, which is essential for the state's livestock that graze on the rangeland. Following the recent rains, some sprouting is becoming visible, but it will still take a few more rain events to establish the grass needed for grazing.
As a result, at the start of this month, it has become apparent that a limited amount of water allocation will be available for agriculture and public water systems this year.
California remained the leading state in cash farm receipts, accounting for 7.1% of total U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products.
Agriculture utilizes approximately 80% of the state's water. Due to the Mediterranean climate, most agricultural production would not be possible without irrigation.
Therefore, an across-the-board 20% reduction in water allocation will have a large impact on agriculture, forcing farmers and ranchers to turn to groundwater sources, Parker explained.
Utilizing groundwater sources creates additional challenges for the farming community. Pumping groundwater to farmland is expensive, so it will be allocated first towards permanent crops, e.g., tree crops, and then annual crops. In addition, the low water quality makes groundwater unfit for growing certain crops.
Parker added that, for livestock producers, lack of growth in the rangeland will reduce the amount of grass available for grazing and growing other feedstuffs. In return, farmers and ranchers will be seeking any available non-grazed land, culling their herds and importing feed, which will all add to the operation's bottom line.
For the dairy industry — the state's largest animal agriculture sector — the water shortage will make it difficult for producers to grow all the feed their herds require.
In January, federal agriculture officials designated parts of 11 states, including California, as disaster areas due to lack of rain.
On Feb. 14, President Barak Obama, during his visit to California, announced emergency funding from several federal programs to support the drought-stricken region.
"While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy, California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table," Obama said.
The federal aid included $100 million in expedited livestock disaster assistance to California farmers and ranchers for financial losses in 2012 through 2014.
"Some of the assistance was just moving up the timing of programs that were already in existence, which is helpful," Parker said. "I think we are going to see additional need down the road, and it's a start to help those communities."
As the drought continues, a ripple effect will occur throughout the state, especially in smaller farming communities. California's farmers and ranchers are not likely to be spending money on new equipment or other unnecessary expenditures. In addition, because the state grows nearly half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts, which are labor-intensive crops, high unemployment rates are expected.
The consequences of the drought, on the whole, will translate into higher prices in the produce aisle for all U.S. consumers.