Despite drought, California has record high crop revenue

August 27 23:42 2015

Even with hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland left dry during the most severe drought on record, California farmers have been bringing in record-high revenue from crops, according to a study released Wednesday. The study from the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, concluded that revenues and the numbers of farm-related jobs have been pushed higher because of a shift to more high-value crops, such as almonds, pistachios and wine grapes. That long-term trend has been possible only because of unsustainable over-pumping of groundwater, which is leading to rapid drops in water tables, sinking ground and dry wells in some areas.

“One of the reasons that agricultural revenues and employment are as strong as they are is because of groundwater overdraft,” said Heather Cooley, the study’s lead author and the institute’s water program director. “It can help insulate the agricultural sector from some of the short-term impacts, but it does create impacts and costs that are borne by others, both in current and future generations.” Groundwater levels have been falling for decades in the Central Valley, and those declines have accelerated during the drought.

With water levels reaching record lows, the ground has been sinking faster than ever in some parts of the valley. In a report released earlier this month, NASA researchers found that the land near Corcoran, Calif., in Kings County sank 13 inches in eight months, or about 1.6 inches a month. As the ground sinks, roads, bridges and canals are being damaged. The trend also can permanently reduce the water-storage capacity of the aquifer.

Cooley and her colleagues analyzed statewide data from 2000 through 2014 and found that crop revenue reached a new high of $34 billion in 2013. Even as revenue declined 1.4% last year, it ranked second in state history. The increase largely comes from new plantings of fruit and nut orchards and high market prices for those crops, researchers said.