Secretary Karen Ross gives an update on the drought and the impacts to California agriculture

Karen Ross, Secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture, gave an update on the drought during her testimony at an Assembly budget subcommittee last week where she detailed the impacts the drought is having on agriculture.

Ms. Ross began by emphasizing the collaboration between the state and federal agencies with regards to how the water projects are operated.  “There is a new level of collaboration, not just here at the state level between our Department of Water Resources with the Department of Water Resources as well as the State Water Resources Control Board, but also that same level of daily interaction with our counterparts at the federal level,” she said.

Ross 1She mentioned that later that day, the Drought Operations Plan would be released, which is the plan for how the water projects will be operated through November of this year.  “It’s a very important document because it’s the framework of how decisions will be made for the rest of this year,” she said.  “How can we maximize any opportunities to capture flows and put them into storage for use the rest of the year, but also how we can address the needs of all the beneficial uses and what we are going to do be able to do for carryover for health and human needs as well as fish issues that we’re required by law to accommodate.”

With regard to the drought and its impact to agriculture, obviously it takes a lot of water to produce food, process food, and ship it to all of our consumers around the world, and there’s no doubt that there will be tremendous impact to agriculture this year,” she said.  “There are some areas of the state that do not have the ability to tap into groundwater which is our savings account for drought situations.  We are going to have to rely on the ability of districts that have access to water to be able to transfer amongst users to be able to mitigate the impact of the drought.”

“It is much too early to say what the actual amount of fallowed acres will be.  We have a number of people working with tree growers to really understand what is the minimal amount of water that can be used just to maintain the continued existence of an almond orchard, as an example,” Ms. Ross said.  “We’ve never been in this place before.  We’ve never been in a situation where on a statewide basis, there’s so little water in the system to give us any cushion at all.”

Ms. Ross noted that in the drought emergency legislation, $10 million has been made available for agricultural water efficiency grants, and that there are workshops being held within the week, with the hope to have the funds distributed and the systems in place as close to July 1st as possible.

The Department of Food and Ag has commissioned a socio-economic impact study by the UC Davis, she said.  “In 2009, the finals number for that drought, which was much more limited geographically than what we’re seeing on a statewide basis this year, there were 285,000 acres that were fallowed.  It was about a $334 million revenue impact and about 9800 jobs.  We know that just because of the statewide nature of this year’s drought that those numbers will be much higher.  We will not have preliminary numbers before the end of May, but it is being used to help us target resources for unemployed farm workers where the needs are most impacted.”

April is the first month where we see a lot of impacts where people are not being called back to do planting and to do field preparation, so this will be a big month where we’ll really start to see hard numbers as far as employment impacts,” she said.  “Then throughout the summer, it tends to peak down, and then as harvest comes back, that will be another peak time where we expect to have big needs.”

The Drought Task Force has been holding workshops in the coastal areas with one of the first places being in Mendocino County, she said.  Fortunately, they have enjoyed significant rain fall and they are in a much better position than they were in February of this year, she said.  “In Mendocino County, at one point, they had three vulnerable drinking water systems,” Ms. Ross said.  “Unfortunately it takes crisis sometimes to drive the level of collaboration that we’ve seen, but through their willingness to work together as citizens to do interties and really help connect the community to be able to get through the drought situation as well as making an investment …  I’m happy to say all three of those communities have been able to address their drinking water situation, have the interties and are in a completely different position than they were two months ago.  Obviously the additional rainfall helped, so Mother Nature’s still the biggest player here.”

One of the things we’ve heard throughout the last three months is that we’ve been here before, so what can we do to mitigate the impact because we will be here again, and they really want to see us all thinking about smart investments, better preparation, and bringing more resiliency to our local communities,” Ms. Ross said.

The Drought Task Force met in Santa Cruz as well, she said.  “In the coastal areas, they are very dependent on groundwater,” she said.  “They do not have significant impacts at this time that they are anticipating and in fact there are some additional plantings going on. … We’re seeing lettuce crops and some of the vegetable crops that are normally in the Central Valley that were not planted in January and February, and there’s actually some increased plantings taking place over in the coast area, so because of that kind of changing and adaptability that’s going on in agriculture, it’s much too early to say from an economic perspective what the actual impact will be to agricultural revenues.”

Over the years, California’s dominance in being a preferred supplier to the global food chain has grown in significance, and that means not just what we’re supplying across the country with regard to being the home state for 50% of our fresh fruits and vegetables and almost 100%  of our tree nuts, but that is something that has grown in the export market as well,” she said.  “There are a lot more companies and international companies looking at California and the reliability of our supplies, so there are a lot of eyes watching how we manage our way through this drought.  We all have to be very hopeful that the next winter brings us normal precipitation because we are very much a player and a preferred supplier to the global food chain.”

It’s about adaptation, it’s about trying to move water around to mitigate the impact to the extent that we can, it’s about understanding that our farmworker community is on the front line of the most immediate impact and that the ultimate conservation comes from a farmer whose not able to plant a field this year who loses that revenue stream and does not create those jobs that they normally do and has less product going into the packing house or the processing plant.”

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