Policy Brief: Drought and California’s Agriculture

Alvar Escriva-Bou , Josué Medellín-Azuara , Ellen Hanak , John Abatzoglou , and Joshua Viers

Supported with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System, and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

photo - Plowed Fields with Mt. Diablo in Background

  • California’s agricultural sector—the nation’s largest—generates more than $50 billion dollars in annual revenue and employs more than 420,000 people.
  • The ongoing drought is reducing water availability and increasing crop water demands, taking a toll on agriculture and related sectors.
  • Economic impacts of the drought in 2021 were modest statewide, but more costly in the Sacramento and North Coast regions. Dry conditions will persist in 2022, increasing impacts.
  • Addressing the negative impacts of pumping, accelerating water demand management, and improving storage would increase agriculture’s resilience.

California’s agricultural sector is the nation’s largest, but water is a concern

The industry employs over 420,000 people and generates more than $50 billion in annual revenue . Farmers have steadily improved productivity, shifting to crops that generate more profit and jobs per unit of water—like fruits, nuts, and vegetables—while maintaining a sizeable share of the nation’s dairy and beef cattle production.

However, California farms rely heavily on irrigation, and water availability is an enduring concern despite ongoing improvements in irrigation efficiency. Climatic and regulatory constraints have limited surface water in recent decades. Chronic overpumping of groundwater has dried up wells and damaged infrastructure, prompting the enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014.

A fast-paced drought—fueled by climate change—is constraining water availability and increasing crop water demands

Climate change is making California’s variable climate even more volatile, with increasingly dramatic swings between wet and dry conditions—or “ precipitation whiplash .” At the same time, California is experiencing a megadrought along with much of the West, with chronic low precipitation and higher temperatures.

The 2020 and 2021 water years constituted the second-driest two-year period since records began in 1895, and the driest since the 1976–77 drought. We estimate that unusually warm temperatures in 2021—nearly 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average—created an additional 3–4 inches of evaporative demand, or about an 8 percent increase in crop water demands.

Drought is raising costs and reducing farm revenue

To stretch available supplies, farmers may also reduce watering below crop water needs, which is known as “deficit irrigation.” Reduced irrigation can lower crop yields. In the Russian River Basin, where wine grapes are a major crop, yield declines from drought—along with crop damage from wildfire smoke—decreased revenues by $148 million (almost 24%). Across impacted regions, crop revenue losses and increased pumping costs were estimated at $1.1 billion, with roughly 8,700 full- and part-time jobs lost.

In 2021, the drought hit Sacramento Valley and North Coast agriculture hardest as a share of crop revenues

figure - In 2021, the drought hit Sacramento Valley and North Coast agriculture hardest as a share of crop revenues

SOURCE: Adapted from Medellín-Azuara et al. (2022) . NOTES: This analysis focused on the most deeply impacted areas of the state in 2021. The numbers above the bars show the values for each variable in each region, while the numbers in parentheses show the percentage of the impact with respect to the regional baseline. Net water shortage is the reduction in surface deliveries minus groundwater augmentation in 2021 relative to 2002–16. Idled land is relative to 2018. Direct economic losses are lost crop revenue relative to 2018, plus the increase in pumping costs.

To date, the drought has hit the Sacramento and North Coast regions hardest

While the statewide economic impacts were modest in 2021, costs were significant in some areas as a share of the local agricultural economy. The San Joaquin Valley was severely impacted during the last drought, but extremely dry conditions in the Sacramento Valley and North Coast regions—normally water-rich areas—meant these regions were hit hardest. In 2021, surface water deliveries in the Sacramento Valley were lower than in any year of the 2012–16 drought. The Sacramento Valley lost about 11 percent of crop revenues, and the Russian River about 24 percent. In contrast, the impact in the San Joaquin River Basin and the Tulare Lake Basin in 2021 to date has been relatively small (about 1% and 2%, respectively). As California enters a third year of severe drought in 2022, and water cutbacks increase, these impacts will intensify and spread.

The drought has raised challenges for SGMA implementation

This drought coincided with the early days of SGMA implementation. The law requires local groundwater users to avoid significant undesirable results from pumping, yet nearly 1,000  households reported dry or compromised wells in 2021 because of increased pumping and reduced natural recharge (see figure below). Subsidence also increased in 2021, though at a lower rate than in the last drought.

Around 1,000 domestic wells were reported dry during 2021, most of them in the Central Valley

figure - Around 1,000 domestic wells were reported dry during 2021, most of them in the Central Valley

SOURCE: Household water supply shortage reporting system. Department of Water Resources. NOTES: Every dot represents a household reporting water supply shortages; these mainly result from dry or failing groundwater wells, but can also include shortages of surface supplies. The shaded areas represent the drought impact study areas. In the 2012–16 drought, nearly 2,600 dry domestic well shortages were reported to the state. The 2021 data have not yet been checked for duplicates. Although awareness of this reporting tool has increased, some households are likely not reporting problems.

Local and state agencies have been faster to respond to dry domestic wells than in the last drought. But many of the initial SGMA plans in the San Joaquin Valley failed to adequately address the undesirable impacts of overpumping— gaps that they must quickly fix to avoid state intervention . As a positive sign, some local agencies in this region have begun the difficult task of implementing restrictions on groundwater pumping—an important tool for managing demand.

A number of policy changes could help California’s farmers adapt

Some actions could help California’s farmers lessen drought impacts, adapt to the changing climate, and ease the transition to groundwater sustainability.

This policy brief draws on Medellín-Azuara, J. et al. (2022). Economic Impacts of the 2021 Drought on California Agriculture. Preliminary Report. University of California, Merced and other recent studies by the authors: Alvar Escriva-Bou (PPIC), Josué Medellín-Azuara (UC Merced), Ellen Hanak (PPIC), John Abatzoglou (UC Merced), and Joshua Viers (UC Merced). Special thanks to reviewers Stephanie Anagnoson, Thad Bettner, Ellen Bruno, Thomas Harter, and Caitlin Peterson; Annabelle Rosser for the figures; and editor Sarah Bardeen.

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‘It’s a disaster.’ Drought dramatically shrinking California farmland, costing $1.7 billion

Woman standing in a fallowed rice field

In the fall, rice fields in the Sacramento Valley usually shine golden brown as they await harvesting. This year, however, many fields were left covered with bare dirt.

“It’s a disaster,” said rice farmer Don Bransford. “This has never happened. Never. And I’ve been farming since 1980.”

Bransford typically farms about 1,800 acres of rice. But the drought was so severe this year that water deliveries to area farms were drastically cut. Bransford, board president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, didn’t plant a single acre. Many other farms went idle as well.

Rice grower Don Bransford stands in field.

California has just gone through the state’s driest three-year period on record, and this year the drought has pushed the fallowing of farmland to a new high.

In a new report on the drought’s economic effects, researchers estimated that California’s irrigated farmland shrank by 752,000 acres, or nearly 10%, in 2022 compared with 2019 — the year prior to the drought. That was up from an estimated 563,000 acres of fallowed farmland last year.

Nearly all the farmland that was left unplanted and dry falls within the Central Valley, and a large portion of it in the valley’s northern half. The state’s main rice-growing regions in Sutter, Colusa and Glenn counties were hit particularly hard, the report said, with about 267,000 acres fallowed this year.

“The severity of the ongoing drought has been unprecedented for the Sacramento Valley,” said Josué Medellín-Azuara, a water resources economist and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Merced. “It’s been more severe over the past year, and you have the cumulative effects of the previous dry years.”

Medellín-Azuara and colleagues from UC Merced, UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California prepared the report for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They estimated changes in the acreage of irrigated land by surveying irrigation districts, analyzing water data and reviewing satellite data.

Water courses down a canal amid growing fields.

They found that water deliveries in the Central Valley were cut by nearly 43% in both 2021 and 2022. Growers partially made up for those reductions by pumping more groundwater.

Gross crop revenues fell $1.7 billion, or 4.6%, this year. Revenues of the state’s food processing and manufacturing industries declined nearly $3.5 billion, or 7.8%.

An estimated 12,000 agricultural jobs were lost, representing a 2.8% decline.

“Those farmworkers suffer the most during the droughts,” Medellín-Azuara said.

The researchers said California lacks sufficient programs to assist laborers who lose farm jobs. They said it’s crucial “to identify and assist communities that rely on seasonal and permanent agricultural jobs that are vulnerable to drought.”

Brown plant stalks rise from cracked dry earth.

The amount of farmland left dry this year surpassed the peak of fallowed land during California’s last drought from 2012 to 2016.

Medellín-Azuara said the situation could have been worse this year if reservoirs that supply the San Joaquin Valley hadn’t risen somewhat with rains in late 2021, making more water deliveries possible.

Still, the losses for agriculture were severe.

“It’s a really remarkable hit,” said Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. He said the effects on the farm economy in the Sacramento Valley, which typically has more water and fares better than the San Joaquin Valley, were especially pronounced, representing the biggest contraction he has seen in the region in decades.

High milk prices helped mitigate the overall decline in farm revenues, Sumner said. And farmers made various adjustments to cope with reduced water supplies.

“We cut back on cotton. We cut back on some other crops. And the fruits and vegetables that we’re most known for, we continue to produce most of them,” Sumner said. “California agriculture is incredibly resilient.”

But pressure on agriculture is increasing as climate change unleashes more intense and longer-lasting droughts, as well as heat waves that can harm crop yields.

A woman stands in a fallowed rice field.

During the past two years, growers have dramatically increased groundwater pumping in the Central Valley, including many areas where water levels are declining and a growing number of household wells have gone dry. The researchers estimated that farms have pumped 27% more groundwater this year than in 2019.

Such heavy reliance on wells will face new limitations in the coming years. Local water agencies across the San Joaquin Valley are required to begin reining in overpumping under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires them to balance water use with available supplies by 2040. Researchers have projected that meeting the law’s sustainability rules will require that vast areas of farmland be taken out of production permanently.

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For now, farmers with wells have been able to rely on aquifers. But in areas where rice farms have long depended solely on flows from the Sacramento River, many growers have no wells. Without water flowing in canals, farmers were left without options.

California harvested the state’s smallest rice crop since the severe drought of 1977-78, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We typically plant about 100,000 acres of rice in our district. And this year, we planted 1,000 acres,” said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. “It’s just a massive, massive impact.”

Receding waters in a lake leave a bare, brown shoreline.

With the Sacramento River watershed parched and Shasta Lake at low levels, wildlife officials dedicated some water to try to help the spawning of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon , which contributed to the cuts in water deliveries to farms, Bettner said.

“Unfortunately, those protections for winter-run didn’t help the fish,” Bettner said. “We’re seeing, basically, very few of them survive.”

Now many rice farmers are feeling uneasy about what might happen if the drought persists next year, Bettner said. “We’re very concerned about how many small family farms that we have in our district continue to stay in business.”

Bransford said he has crop insurance and can receive compensation for the rice he couldn’t plant. He has kept a couple of employees on his payroll. But much of the area’s farming economy has shriveled, leaving many laborers suffering.

“It’s devastating,” Bransford said. “The greatest impacts are to the farmworkers.”

“They’re an embedded, important part of our community,” he said. “And the problem we have as owners of farms is if these people leave, there’s no replacement.”

California farms primarily produce short- and medium-grain Japonica rice, which is used for sushi and other dishes. The rice is sold domestically and also exported to Asia and other parts of the world.

The area’s vast rice fields have long provided habitat for migrating birds, which over the last century have lost most of the natural wetlands where they once stopped to rest and feed.

Usually, after growers harvest their crops, the fields are left with chopped-up rice straw and fallen kernels. The farmers will again send water flowing to fields, attracting geese, ducks and other birds, which arrive in large flocks to feed.

With many fields now bone dry, Bransford and other farmers say they’re concerned about how the birds and other species will fare.

The California Rice Commission said this year’s rice crop is estimated to be about half the size of a typical harvest . The organization said the drastic water cuts have also dried up what were once reliable habitats for more than 200 wildlife species, among them migrating ducks and geese, which typically depend on rice fields for a large portion of their food during the fall and winter.

Tim Johnson, the commission’s president and CEO, said the lack of water now threatens millions of wetland-dependent birds, and could affect the migratory path along the Pacific Flyway . He said while the long-term environmental effects are unknown, rice farmers have been working with government agencies and conservation groups to provide as much habitat as possible and “assist in tracking the impacts this historic drought will have on waterbirds, with the goal of using that science to better help the Pacific Flyway in the years ahead.”

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On the west side of the Sacramento Valley, waterbirds typically move between wildlife refuges and rice fields. Because the local wildlife refuges had their water deliveries cut this year, Bransford said, the irrigation district sold the government additional water to help nourish the habitats.

The sun sets over a flooded rice field in the Sacramento Valley.

With fewer rice fields to turn to, the birds will likely be concentrated where there is water, Bransford said. And such concentrations of birds can lead to outbreaks of avian botulism or other deadly illnesses. A wave of avian flu has already left millions of birds dead in parts of North America, and has been circulating in California.

“Hopefully, it will not have an impact on the waterfowl. But there is potential for that,” Bransford said.

Because migrating birds are also encountering parched landscapes elsewhere, he said, “it’s really going to be difficult on them.”

While the dry fields show the drought’s immediate toll, farmers expect it could take a year to determine how severe the ecological ripple effects turn out to be.

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Ian James is a reporter who focuses on water in California and the West. Before joining the Los Angeles Times in 2021, he was an environment reporter at the Arizona Republic and the Desert Sun. He previously worked for the Associated Press as a correspondent in the Caribbean and as bureau chief in Venezuela. He is originally from California.

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California drought raises red flags for agriculture

More than 97 percent of California is under at least “severe” drought conditions, raising the specter of difficult agricultural decisions in a state that produces a quarter of U.S. food.  

Farming is the main driver of water usage in the state, and the drought, now in its third year, comes alongside increasing pressure on California to bear more of the burden of Colorado River water cutbacks. 

As of Thursday, 97.52 percent of the nation’s most populous state is in a state of “severe” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while 99.76 percent is at least “moderate” drought. This time last year, 95.56 percent of the state was classified as under “severe” drought. 

Much of the drought has been concentrated in the northern part of the state, said Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center.

That’s important and a problem, since the Southern California gets much of its water supplies from the Sacramento Valley, he noted.

California produces more than one-third of U.S. vegetables and three-quarters of domestic fruits and nuts, including $5.23 billion in grapes, $3.02 billion in strawberries and $2.03 billion in lettuce in 2021, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. 

Much of this agriculture is concentrated in the state’s Central Valley, the source of about 8 percent of the nation’s crop output, and the Salinas Valley, the source of about $1.36 billion in lettuce in 2019. 

California is the senior-most state in the interstate agreement governing allocations from the Colorado River, which, in the Golden State, primarily goes to farming in the Imperial Valley. As a result, the state avoided any cuts in a new round of allocations announced by the Bureau of Reclamation in August, with the cutbacks focusing on Arizona and Nevada instead. 

“Arizona is taking the brunt of that [because] they’re the junior water user, if you will, on the Colorado. But it seems that all the states in the Colorado River Basin are going to have to decrease their use of Colorado River water,” Holly Doremus, James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd professor of environmental regulation at Berkley Law School, told The Hill. 

Separate negotiations are taking place after basin states missed an August deadline to agree to cuts to avert “dead pool” status in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Imperial Irrigation District and Metropolitan Water District, which serve the Imperial Valley and Los Angeles respectively, remain in talks as of this week.  

California’s size, combined with its seniority on water rights, means the overallocation of the river hasn’t severely impacted the state yet, but “there’s quite a bit of folks in in other states calling for California to make more of a sacrifice on the Colorado River,” Faith Kearns, an academic coordinator at the California Institute for Water Resources, told The Hill. 

For example, earlier this week, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), called on California to step up its contribution to water preservation, noting the state increased use of river water by 41 percent from April 2021 to April 2022. “The cuts necessary cannot possibly be borne by one or two states alone,” he wrote. 

Even aside from the river allocation, “there’s certainly concerns about the long-term viability of agriculture in many parts of this state,” said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences. 

Since California’s previous drought, which stretched from 2011-2016, the state has looked at ending groundwater overdraft, which occurs when more groundwater is used from an aquifer than enters it.  

“That by itself was going to require fallowing maybe half a million acres of irrigated land in California,” Lund said. “But as we’re seeing this warmer, drier climate, with perhaps greater frequency of droughts and floods, with climate change, in addition to the overdraft and the perilous state of some of the invasive species … California is probably looking at fallowing 1.5 or 2 million acres out of maybe 7 million acres of irrigated land, which is pretty substantial.” 

California’s agriculture industry irrigates about 9.6 million acres a year with 34 million acre-feet of water, and cutbacks would likely be achieved by paying farmers to plant less. 

Last year, drought conditions cost California agriculture about $1.1 billion as nearly 395,000 acres were idled, according to research from the University of California Merced . 

“Should dry conditions persist throughout 2022, a higher tier of adaptation measures may come into play to reduce economic impacts on agriculture and communities that host thousands of households relying on agriculture for a living.” Josué Medellín-Azuara, a professor at UC Merced’s School of Engineering and lead author of the report, warned in a statement. 

In addition to the agriculture needs, Los Angeles, the state’s most populous city, is located in one of the driest parts of the state, meaning California’s handling of water often turns into a sort of shell game even without the Colorado River issues, Doremus said.  

“We’ve been moving water around the landscape to support our forming and our cities, but there’s just not as much water as we expect to go around these days,” she said.  

“I think the cities will be fine, they’ll just have to buy more water,” Lund said. However, he said, if dryer conditions persist, “there will be some important local changes in some of those agricultural areas [like] the Imperial Valley and Paolo Verde as well … you will see a lot of the lower-valued agriculture going away.” 

Not all the indicators are going in the wrong direction for California. A year ago, 47.4 percent of the state was under “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest USDM classification. This week, the portion is down to 16.57 percent. 

“What we’re looking at, I think over the next 10, 20 years, is finding ways to move water from one use to another without drastically destabilizing our economy or our natural systems,” Doremus said.  

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Storms hammer major California farming areas, while offering drought relief

Road closed for flooding

A rural road in Colusa County flooded during heavy rains. (photo: Department of Water Resources)

California is drying out after an unprecedented series of winter storms brought weeks of rain, flooding, high winds, blizzards, weeklong power outages and at least two tornadoes.

The state, which was still struggling just weeks ago under a deep multi-year drought, was hit with nine atmospheric rivers, which can each carry as much precipitation as a hurricane.

Fortunately for farmers, most crops hadn’t been planted yet in the areas of the Central Coast and northern San Joaquin Valley that were hit hardest. While water supplies are shaping up well for the coming growing season, it’s not clear yet how much the floodwaters will help recharge badly depleted groundwater sources.

The first storm landed on New Year’s Eve and led to breached levees in farmland about 20 miles south of the state capitol. A few ranchers scrambled to evacuate livestock as floodwaters rose, while others watched as horses waded through water deep enough to submerge cars. Winds exceeded 70 mph in Sacramento County, toppling large oak trees onto a walnut orchard at one farm, according to the California Farm Bureau.

A separate levee breach forced the evacuation of a small farmworker community further south in Merced County. Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the county last week and pledged to “ future proof ” the region from climate impacts.

After two weeks of rain, the soil was saturated and smaller storm systems led to devastating floods in coastal regions that grow lettuce and berries, including the Salinas and Pajaro valleys and Santa Barbara County. Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot told Agri-Pulse about 20,000 acres of farmland in his county are flooded or have standing water due to the Salinas River overtopping its banks, with up to $50 million in damages to crops and farm infrastructure. The county has submitted a request for a federal disaster declaration.

Last week the storms shifted to the northern end of the state, raising the state’s largest reservoirs. Rivers in Wine Country hit flood stage in a region that went critically dry two years ago .

Norm Groot

At least 20 lives have been lost in the storms and communities have suffered more than $1 billion in damages to property, roads and other infrastructure. The White House approved a major disaster declaration on Saturday, providing assistance with emergency response and housing support for flooded counties. More than 30 of California’s 58 counties are now included under disaster declarations .

President Joe Biden will travel to California on Thursday to visit areas devastated by winter storms. The White House said Monday the president plans to tour the Central Coast and meet with state and local officials to survey recovery efforts and coordinate federal support.

California’s farmers and ranchers have suddenly found themselves under emergency declarations for both the drought and flooding. The $50 billion agricultural economy largely relies on a complex system of more than a thousand miles of canals and about 1,500 reservoirs to store rain and spring snowmelt to deliver throughout the dry summer months for irrigation. After three years of intense drought and extreme heat waves, however, the reservoirs were so low that state officials were only releasing enough to satisfy basic human health and safety needs for the cities and towns dependent on imported water.

Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir , stood at about 30% of capacity before the storms arrived and has since nudged up to more than 50%, though it remains below average for this time of year. The water level in Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir, fell so low last year that dam operators had to shut off power generation. It now stands slightly above average for this date.

Reservoir levels only tell part of the story when it comes to the water outlook for growers this year. California’s mountains store the largest amount of water, in the form of snow. The overall snowpack for the state now sits at more than 250% of average for this time of year, with more snow on the way Wednesday night.

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Most reservoirs still have plenty of room for capturing more runoff from rivers and streams, but a few have been releasing enormous amounts of water. To protect Sacramento from floods, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must keep Folsom Lake about half empty at this time of year in preparation for any future storms.

High reservoir releases from Folsom and other dams have combined with natural runoff funneling into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and eventually into the ocean. Massive pumps are delivering about 2% of the floodwater to farms, cities and reservoirs in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Many growers along the canals have been diverting floodwater onto their farms to percolate into the groundwater aquifers, serving as a savings bank for the next dry times. Farms that went fallow months ago are now under water.

Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of   Agri-Pulse   by clicking on our link!     

Meanwhile, state agencies have been racing to approve permits for new groundwater recharge projects to capture flood flows at a larger scale.

During the 2012-16 drought, many communities turned to groundwater pumping to supplant surface water supplies, and an epidemic of drinking water wells running dry led lawmakers to pass a series of bills known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014. Researchers estimate that curtailing groundwater pumping over the 20-year timeline will require fallowing a fifth of the San Joaquin Valley’s farmland unless the state finds new ways to capture more water.

The first plans under the new regulations began taking effect in 2020, and many of those rely on capturing floodwater to recharge aquifers. State hydrologists estimate California has far more capacity for underground storage than it does in the existing reservoirs.

But the state has long been mired in political debates over protecting endangered fish populations in the Delta and river watersheds. Proposals for building new reservoirs have stalled and restrictions on pumping water to protect fish have slowed water deliveries and frustrated farmers , while permitting remains an obstacle for groundwater recharge projects as well.

For now, the storms have largely reversed the deep drought in which the state had been. Just three months ago, 40% of the state was rated in extreme or exceptional drought; now none of the state is, according to  the U.S. Drought Monitor map .

Still, climatologists are cautioning the situation could quickly change in the months ahead. Over the last two years, parched ecosystems have absorbed more runoff , while spring heat waves have evaporated portions of the snowpack directly into the atmosphere before it could melt.

For more news, go to Agri-Pulse.com .

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California Department of Food and Agriculture

California Drought Information & Assistance


USDA Disaster Assistance Programs

Farm service agency news release.

USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers disaster assistance and low-interest loan programs to assist you in your recovery efforts following drought. Available programs and loans include:

To establish or retain FSA program eligibility, you must report prevented planting and failed acres (crops and grasses). Prevented planting acreage must be reported on form FSA-576, Notice of Loss, no later than 15 calendar days after the final planting date as established by FSA and Risk Management Agency (RMA).

CDFA Drought Programs

Usda california offices, farm service agency, natural resources conservation service, rural development, risk management agency.

Department of Water Resources

Agricultural Water Use Efficiency

California is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

A view of water-efficient drip irrigation. DWR/2016.

California is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and is the major producer of many nuts, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, California is the only producer of 13 commodities  and is a top producer of more than 74 different commodities in the U.S. The state exports a huge quantity of agricultural products, bringing more than $20 billion into California’s economy .

California’s agricultural success would not be possible without irrigation. In an average year, approximately 9.6 million acres are irrigated with roughly 34 million acre-feet of water; an amount that would cover 31 million football fields with 1 foot of water. Most of this irrigation water is used very efficiently.

What do we mean by “used efficiently?” This means that water that isn’t used on one farm is used on another, so that the same amount of water can be used to produce more crops. Also, this water can be used to help recharge groundwater.

Yet, considering that agriculture accounts for approximately 80 percent of all the water used in California, even small improvements in agricultural water use efficiency can be significant.

Agricultural Water Management Plans

The  Water Conservation Act of 2009 (SB X7-7)  requires agricultural water suppliers serving more than 25,000 irrigated acres (excluding recycled water deliveries) to adopt and submit to DWR an Agricultural Water Management Plan (AWMP). These plans must include reports on the implementation status of specific Efficient Water Management Practices (EWMPs) that were required under SB X7-7. 

Agricultural water suppliers can submit individual plans or collaborate and submit regional plans, as long as the plans meet the requirements of SB X7-7. Agricultural water suppliers that provide water to between 10,000 and up to 25,000 irrigated acres (excluding recycled water) are not required to prepare or submit AWMPs under SB X7-7, unless state funds are made available to support this. 

DWR has updated the Agricultural Water Management Plan Guidebook for preparing 2020 AWMPs (AWMPs must be adopted by April 1, 2021 and submitted to DWR within 30 days of adoption). See the  Public Review Draft of the 2020 AWMP Guidebook  for more information.

UPDATE: DWR is accepting comments on the Public Review Draft through September 28, 2020 .  

Comments can be submitted by email to: [email protected] .

An on-line public workshop was held on September 16, 2020 to solicit feedback and comments.  Details and registration for this workshop are available on the DWR Events page . 

View the  AWMP 2020 Guidebook Public Workshop  and Agenda for more information.

Summary of 2015 Agricultural Water Management Plans Submitted

In 2015, an estimated 54 agricultural water suppliers met the 25,000-acre threshold representing approximately 4,074,400 irrigated acres.   The number of water suppliers who supply to more than 25,000 acres and who were required to submit an AWMP:

 In 2016, there were an estimated 39 agricultural water suppliers in the 10,000 to 25,000 irrigated acres category, represented approximately 594,600 irrigated acres. The number of water suppliers who supply to 10,000 - 25,000 acres and who were required to submit a 2015 AWMP by July 1, 2016:

The Agricultural Water Management Plan Guidebook is undergoing revision for 2020 requirements. Please contact us if you would like a copy of the 2015 Guidebook.

View the 2015 AWMPs.

Summary of 2012 Agricultural Water Management Plans Submitted

An estimated 54 agricultural water suppliers met the 25,000-acre minimum threshold and are required by SB X7-7 to submit water management plans.  Below is the status of the 2012 Agricultural Water Management Plan review as of August 10, 2015, including a link to a list and the submittal status for each individual agency.

View the 2012 AWMPs .

Aggregated Farm Gate Delivery Reporting

Requirements for farm-gate agricultural water delivery reporting in effect since 2019:

Agricultural water suppliers now submit reports online.

Reporting must be by groundwater basin/sub-basin ( Section 531.10 of the Water Code )*

The Aggregated Farm-gate Delivery Form is due by April 1 of each year for the preceding calendar year.

Who Must File?

Agricultural water suppliers who deliver 2,000 or more acre-feet of water or supply to 2,000 or more irrigated acres.

What Must Be Filed?

Agricultural water suppliers who fit the above requirements must submit an annual report on the total aggregated amount of surface water they delivered to their agricultural customers along with a description of best professional practices for determining deliveries.

How To File:

Farm-gate reports must now be submitted electronically.

Use the Agricultural Aggregated Farm-Gate1 Delivery Reporting Form for Article 2 ( California Code of Regulations, Title 23, Division 2, Chapter 5.1, Article 2, Section 597 *) in the WUEdata Portal.

Submit reports in the online WUEdata Portal .  

For questions, contact:

[email protected]

* The revised form was approved by the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) on January 15, 2019. Groundwater basin or sub-basins are identified and defined in Bulletin 118 in 10721 (b) of the Water Code.

See DWR’s groundwater mapping tool to locate applicable groundwater basins.

For more information on groundwater basins, see DWR’s groundwater publication webpage .

Agricultural Water Measurement

DWR was required to adopt regulations that provide for a range of options that agricultural water suppliers may use or implement to comply with agricultural water volume measurement requirements in SB X7-7 (Part 2.55, Chapter 4, §10608.48(i)) (1)).

This started with an emergency regulation, but has completed the rule-making process and is now a permanent regulation effective July 11, 2012. Please contact us for public hearings and the public process documents.

Who must implement?

Agricultural water suppliers providing water to more than 25,000 irrigated acres (excluding recycled water) (large water suppliers) by July 31, 2012 (§10608.48 (a))

Agricultural water suppliers providing water to more than 10,000 to 25,000 irrigated acres (excluding recycled water) for whom state funding has been provided for that purpose (mid-sized water suppliers)

The Water Measurement Regulations provide for a range of options that agricultural water suppliers may use.

  The Final Regulation is available for viewing.

Contact Information

[email protected]

Water Use Efficiency Grants and Loans

What's New

DWR is pleased to announce a public comment period for the Draft County Drought Resilience Plan Guidebook.

As directed by 2018 legislation, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) today submitted a first report to the State Water Resources Control Board summarizing how urban water districts assess the adequacy of their supplies over the next seven months.


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National Integrated Drought Information System


Drought can reduce both water availability and water quality necessary for productive farms, ranches, and grazing lands, resulting in significant negative direct and indirect economic impacts to the agricultural sector. Drought can also contribute to insect outbreaks, increases in wildfire and altered rates of carbon, nutrient, and water cycling—all of which can impact agricultural production, critical ecosystem functions that underpin agricultural systems, and the livelihoods and health of farming communities.

Drought Early Warning for the Agriculture Sector

Related content.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) conducts hundreds of surveys each year and a Census of Agriculture every 5 years. NASS prepares reports covering virtually every aspect of U.S. agriculture, including agricultural commodities statistics for crops and livestock.

This map displays USDA corn crop production (data from 2017) alongside current U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) drought designations. Learn more .

This map displays USDA soybean crop production (data from 2017) alongside current U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) drought designations. Learn more .

This map displays USDA hay crop production (data from 2017) alongside current U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) drought designations. Learn more .

This map displays USDA beef cattle data (from 2017) alongside current U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) drought designations. Learn more .

This map displays USDA wheat crop production (data from 2017) alongside current U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) drought designations. Learn more .

Corn Produced by County

U.s. drought monitor, soybeans produced by county, hay produced by county, cattle produced by county, wheat produced by county.

USDA NASS ,  U.S. Drought Monitor

Agricultural Production Losses

The primary direct economic impact of drought in the agricultural sector is crop failure and pasture losses. These costs are often passed on to consumers through increased prices and/or they may be offset through government disaster assistance programs. Indirect impacts of drought in the sector can include reduced supplies to downstream industries, such as food processors, and reduced demand for inputs, such as fertilizer and farm labor. The non-market impacts of production losses include mental health strain on farmers.

Decreased Water Availability for Agriculture

The depletion of water availability in soils causes significant declines in crops and livestock productivity. In addition, surface and groundwater supplies may decline during drought, affecting water availability and increasing costs to access water for crop or forage irrigation and watering livestock. With a return to normal precipitation, soil moisture typically recovers long before surface and groundwater supplies are replenished.

Pests and Diseases

Drought, coupled with high temperatures, may expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases that affect crops, forage, and livestock.

Specialty Crops

Most specialty crops (such as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and medicinal herbs) are more vulnerable to drought than field crops and have a higher value per unit of land/water. They may therefore represent a higher risk for experiencing economic loss in drought if the crop water demand exceeds water supply.

Drought Impacts on Agriculture

The agricultural sector is an important contributor to the economy of the United States in many ways, from promoting food and energy security to providing jobs in rural communities. In 2015, farms contributed $136.7 billion to the U.S. economy and accounted for 2.6 million jobs, with about half of farm revenue coming from livestock production. Other agriculture- and food-related sectors contributed an additional $855 billion and accounted for 21 million full- and part-time jobs.

Drought ranks third among environmental phenomena associated with billion-dollar weather disasters since 1980, behind tropical cyclones and severe storms. The cost of drought events averages over $9 billion per year, with an annual cost of over $6 billion, making it a serious hazard with substantial socioeconomic consequences. 

Sustained drought has considerable negative effects on crops and livestock, including the reduced production, destruction of property, and livestock sell-offs. 

For example, in 2012, severe drought impacted 80 percent of agricultural land in the United States, causing more than two-thirds of its counties to be declared disaster areas. The drought affected the production of livestock and field crops such as wheat, corn, and soybean production in the Great Plains and Midwest and accounted for $14.5 billion in loss payments by the federal crop insurance program. In 2015, drought impacts to California’s agricultural sector resulted in $1.84 billion in direct costs, a loss of 10,100 seasonal jobs, and surface water shortages of 8.7 million acre-feet. 

NIDIS partners with the USDA Climate Hubs across the nation to support agricultural producers and ranchers with early information of drought onset and intensification; assessing the impacts of drought on the sector and the economy; and training and raising awareness among farmers and ranchers of how drought is depicted in the U.S. Drought Monitor, which determines federal assistance for producers.

Agricultural production is affected by climate and weather variability. Drought early warning systems are vital for the agricultural sector to prepare for this variability, strengthening its resilience to drought. 

The resources below are organized by the key components of a drought early warning system: (1) drought observation and monitoring; (2) drought planning and preparedness; (3) prediction and forecasting of drought; (4) communication and outreach to the public and affected sectors;  and (5) interdisciplinary and applied research on topics of concern to drought-affected sectors.

Observation & Monitoring

Observation & Monitoring.

Planning & Preparedness

Planning & Preparedness.

Prediction & Forecasting

Prediction & Forecasting.

Communication & Outreach

Communication & Outreach.

Interdisciplinary Research & Applications

Interdisciplinary Research & Applications.

Data & Maps | Agriculture

This collection ranges from easy-to-understand maps depicting drought severity to experimental, satellite-based composite maps primarily used by climate monitoring professionals. 

Drought Relief, Recovery, and Support

A number of federal and state agencies provide relief and recovery support for drought impacts. Find more resources here.

Research & Learn | Flash Drought

Flash droughts can cause extensive damage to agriculture and economies if they are not predicted and discovered early. Learn more about flash drought here.

Research & Learn | Monitoring Drought

Drought monitoring involves measuring changes in precipitation, temperature, and surface and groundwater supplies, among other factors. Learn more about the importance of monitoring drought.

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California, explained

Drought has big impacts on California agriculture

agriculture california drought

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An active farmer's alfalfa field in Lancaster, on July 2, 2021. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

California’s serious and prolonged drought is having serious and prolonged impacts on California’s agricultural industry, the nation’s largest.

Lea este artículo en  español .

As California experiences a second year of drought, with no end in sight, the effects on California’s largest-in-the-nation agricultural industry are profound and perhaps permanent.

State and federal water agencies have cut deliveries to some farmers to zero while others, thanks to water rights dating back more than a century, still have access to water.

Farmers are reacting to shortages in three, often intertwined ways — suspending cultivation of some fields or ripping up orchards for lack of water, drilling new wells to tap into diminishing aquifers, and buying water from those who have it.

All three have major economic impacts. They are driving some farmers, particularly small family operations, out of business altogether, accelerating the shift to large-scale agribusiness corporations with the financial resources to cope, changing the kinds of crops that can be profitably grown, and supercharging the semi-secretive market for buying and selling water.

By happenstance, all of these trends are occurring just as the state begins to implement a 2014 law aimed at limiting the amount of water that farmers can pump from underground aquifers.

A couple weeks ago, the state Department of Water Resources announced that it had rejected as inadequate the underground water management plans of four San Joaquin Valley agencies, including the huge Westlands Water District , indicating that the state will be aggressive in enforcing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“We’re not going to accept a plan to do a plan,” Paul Gosselin, deputy director for the California Department of Water Resources, Sustainable Groundwater Management Office, told the Sacramento Bee . “We’re looking for very concrete, measurable changes to address these deficiencies.”

If anything, however, farmers are drilling more wells to cope with the current drought, the Bee also reported .

“I could work seven days a week if I wanted to,” Fresno County well driller Wesley Harmon told the Bee. “In my area, everybody’s pumping. You can’t blame the farmers. They’re trying to make a living, they’re trying to grow food for everybody.”

The drought is obviously one motive for drilling hundreds of new wells that must go ever-deeper as the water tables drop from overpumping, sometimes leading to the collapse of land above. But another is that farmers know a crackdown is coming and are doing what they can before it arrives.

The Public Policy Institute of California has estimated that full implementation of the groundwater sustainability act could force 750,000 acres of California farmland out of production, or “fallowed.”

The increased activity in California’s water markets, meanwhile, is beginning to draw attention. It’s sometimes more profitable for farmers to sell water than use it to grow crops, with prices surging to over $1,000 an acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons).

Environmentalists have complained that when Sacramento Valley rice growers received a major allotment of water from the federal government earlier this year, much of it was sold to water interests to the south while rice acreage continued to decline.

Recently, GV Wire, a San Joaquin Valley news site, published a lengthy article from another news site, SJV Water, about multi-million-dollar water sales by major agribusiness operations that left small farmers in Kings County in the lurch and forced them, if they can, to drill wells.

There even have been hints that farmers have sold their water allotments for high prices and then sustained their own crops by drilling more wells that exacerbate groundwater overdrafting.

These are serious issues that will become even more intense if drought continues but unfortunately are receiving scant attention from federal and state officials.

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Dan Walters Opinion Columnist

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times... More by Dan Walters


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