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Farmers and Ranchers Cope with Historic California Drought

posted on February 7, 2014

Further west in California, farmers and ranchers might be more receptive to a pipeline – especially if it contains water.

Amidst the state’s driest year on record, California is locked in yet another year of drought and bracing for unemployment to soar, sending farm workers to food lines in a place famous for agricultural abundance.

In the Central Valley -- a region known locally as “America’s Salad Bowl,” one-third of the jobs are related to farming. But with mountain snowpack at just 12 percent of normal, farmers probably will not get the irrigation water they need, and ranchers are already liquidating their herds.

Farmers and Ranchers Cope with Historic California Drought

Mark Cowin/ Director, California Department of Water Resources: "We should all be clear by now that this is not a coming crisis, this is not an evolving crisis, this is a current crisis."

Well known for its commitment to environmental issues, the nation’s top agricultural state now sees the natural beauty it has long sought to protect showing an ugly side.

Governor Jerry Brown / (D) California: "Make no mistake, this drought is a big wakeup call and a reminder that we do depend on natural systems. It's not all just going to the store and see what we can buy."

California finds itself amidst a historic -- and seemingly endless -- drought rooted in 2013, one of the driest years on record.  During the height of what now should be the state’s rainy season, a severe lack of precipitation has led several anxious communities to ration their water supplies.  And many residents of the northern California town of Willits have adopted rather inconvenient methods of coping with the problem.

Andrea Onstad/Willits, California: "Turned off the toilet. I haven't washed my hair for two weeks."

California’s Department of Public Health says 17 rural areas including Willits — a town of about 5,000 people that usually sees about 50 inches of rain a year — are dangerously low on water, and officials expect that number to grow. 

Traces of rain did fall in limited areas of the Golden State late this week, and were predicted to last through the weekend.  But, the National Weather Service forecasts the California drought will “persist or intensify” for at least the next few months.

California’s $45 billion agriculture industry is responsible for nearly half of all fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S.  Filling the nation’s grocery aisles takes a wealth of inputs, and some 80 percent of California’s water supply is consumed by its farming sector.  Should the dry conditions persist, some crops may not be planted this spring.  The lack of water out west is creating more than a few headaches for producers and their wallets.

Darrel Sweet/Alameda County, California: “I’m thinking when I see dusty roads and no grass in January that we're in a lot of trouble."

Among the first to experience the economic bite of extreme drought were ranchers.  While January is normally a slow month for cattle sales in California, perennial blue skies have given way to dying grasses.  And the arid conditions have brought some cattlemen to the auction block.  Unsuitable natural forage has forced producers to purchase expensive feed that packs only a fraction of the nutritional punch found in normally green pastures.  Several livestock owners have chosen to simply keep the best and sell the rest. 

Richard Walker/Monterey County, California: “Oh no, this was not part of the plan, no. I've got some show heifers, some fancy heifers that I'm selling today that I normally would keep."

While some rural areas have the ability to tap underground wells for temporary relief from California’s water shortage, residents of Willits have no such luxury.

The small town’s nearby reservoir is almost empty, with water levels at just four inches.

Bruce Burton/City Councilman-Willits, California: “We would expect this to be full right now. If it were, we'd be standing in maybe two feet of water."

Lawn watering and car washing are subject to mandatory restrictions in Willits.  And local restaurants are using paper plates to cut back on dishwashing.  Some establishments are even pouring drinking water by request only.

Anna Kenny/Willits, California: “Everyone’s a little worried and a little panicked.”

Officials are racing to develop two groundwater wells within city limits, but available water sources are polluted by naturally occurring arsenic and other minerals, so the city needs an expensive treatment facility to make it potable.   

Jim Harden/Willits, California: “It scares us.  As a homeowner, we worry about property values.”

While California’s public health department is testing the water to help determine what kind of treatment is needed, nervous residents hold out hope for the saving grace of Mother Nature.

Jim Harden/Willits, California: “If I wanted to live with rocks around my house, I'd move to Arizona. I don't want that. I want our annual rainfall to come back."





Tags: California drought Jerry Brown livestock produce ranchers water supply Willits


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