Last Friday the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would deliver no water this year to its agricultural customers in the central valley. The state water project had already made the same announcement for its plans. These are the two major sources of irrigation water. There are smaller irrigation districts that have some sources of water, but this is a huge blow to commercial agriculture. Growers will be forced to make major reductions in their production plans.
There has been a lot of discussion about the wisdom and feasibility of growing water intensive crops like rice an cotton in a region that has such limited water resources. However, California stands out as the major producer of crops that require a Mediterranean climate. In addition to crops like grapes and olives, almonds are an important example and California is by far the nation's leading producer.
With California's agricultural heartland entrenched in drought, almond farmers are letting orchards dry up and in some cases making the tough call to have their trees torn out of the ground, leaving behind empty fields.
There are no figures yet available to show an exact number of orchards being removed, but the economic stakes and risks facing growers are clear. Almonds and other nuts are among the most high-value crops in the Central Valley — the biggest producer of such crops in the country. In 2012, California's almond crop had an annual value of $5 billion. This year farmers say the dry conditions are forcing them to make difficult decisions.With crops that are planted annually such as tomatoes and lettuce growers can make annual decisions about planting. Already they are making plans to let fields that are normally devoted to annuals lie fallow in the drought. This too will likely have an impact on food prices. However, with orchards and vineyards growers must work on multi-year time frames. It takes a period of a few years to bring new plantings into productivity. They then are usually expected to have a productive life for an extended period. In the case of almonds it's about 25 years. The decision to pull out trees that are still productive will create an impact that will endure for several years before they can be replaced.
As California gets closer to the point in late March or early April when the chance of any more significant rain becomes highly improbable, the situation looks ever more grim. There is a prospect for some light to moderate rain this week. However, it seems highly unlikely that anything will happen to materially change the dismal outlook. We will soon have a better picture of the impact on agricultural production for this summer, but it is already clear that the disruption will be severe. People in the entire country can expect to feel that in the checkout line at the grocery store.