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As Scientists Debate the Causes, California's Drought Continues to Punish Farmers

With the drought entering its third-consecutive year, scientific debate continues over what role human activity is playing in the intensity and duration of the dry spell.
Image via AP/Jae C. Hong

If only it hadn't come all at once, the heavy, grey skies that swept over California this week would have been a thing to cheer.

A wall of wet Pacific air dumped between three and six inches of rain onto the parched state this week. Despite the sporadic flooding and power outages that resulted, many residents were hoping this running start to the wet season would help break a three-year run of epic drought.


In the San Joaquin Valley town of Tipton, California, Dan Vink was ready for some rain.

"They're calling for maybe as much as two inches here, which would be a pretty sizeable event," Vink told VICE News.

Water is Vink's job. He's the general manager of the Lower Tule River Irrigation District in Tipton, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. Two inches of rain would put Tipton — which typically gets about a foot a year — on track for a near-normal 2014. But it's still early in the season, and three years with little precipitation have taken their toll.

"If we get a decent wet year, we'll fill the reservoirs," Vink said. "But it's going to take several years, three to five years, of full reservoirs and abundant supplies to be able to replace the groundwater we've lost over the past several years."

While parts of northern California got up to six inches of rain in the last week, nearly all parts of the state are still short of normal, according to the Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center. All of the state is under drought conditions and over half is in exceptional drought — the most severe category.

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Much of the West has been touched by the same long-term drought. But California — home to nearly 40 million people and a $43 billion agriculture industry that provides about half of America's fruits and vegetables — is the worst hit.


And while this week's rainfall is welcome, temperatures are still warm enough that the precipitation hitting northern California on Thursday will fall as rain, not snow. Most of California depends on the mountain snowpack to slake its thirst. The snow melts in the spring and collects in reservoirs, some of which are now less than one-third full. The forecast for this winter is that the drought will ease, but won't go away.

In November, state voters approved more than $7.5 billion in new water projects, including plans for several new reservoirs. But analysts at the University of California at Davis point out that you can't store what you don't get in the first place. That's left Dan Macon, a sheep rancher in the Sierra Nevada foothills, facing another year of figuring out how to manage his flock.

"We've had a lot of creative work moving sheep around to places that haven't been grazed for a while," Macon told VICE News. "We sold some sheep. We tried planting some more drought-tolerant grasses."

But he's also facing the prospect of having to reduce his herd again. He's already down to about 150 ewes — about 40 percent fewer than before the drought.

Farmers have begun laying off workers in the surrounding area — and more layoffs are likely to come if the drought doesn't ease.

Even large farms with extensive water rights are starting to face cutbacks. At the Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, about two hours southeast of San Francisco, Cannon Michael told VICE News that his family-owned operation left about 10 percent of its 11,000 acres fallow this year. Some of his neighbors have left 20 percent of their farms unplanted, he said.


The Bowles farm has been in operation for six generations. It gets most of its water from Lake Shasta, a mountain reservoir that's only 26 percent full. Even though some parts of the region are forecast to get up to seven inches of rain this week, Michael said a large portion will simply swell rivers and flow back out into the Pacific.

Federal environmental regulations allow some of that water to be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Bowles, Vink and others are urging Washington to allow for more of that flow to be put to use. But a bill that would allow that appears unlikely to make it through Congress before the end of the year — and the White House says it will veto the bill if it does.

"I'm happy to see positive numbers on the rainfall totals," Michael told VICE News. "But knowing we're going to be under the same operational regime, you realize it's going to take an awful lot of rain to make a difference for folks."

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Michael said his farm conserves water by using drip irrigation rather than less-efficient techniques like spraying crops. But still, his tomatoes require enough water to cover two and a half acres a foot deep. Other crops take up to three and a half acre-feet, the standard unit of measurement for water rights.

Vink told VICE News the farmers who use most of his district's water are increasingly relying on groundwater to make up whatever his system can't deliver. And when it comes to a landowner's own wells, Vink can only offer advice, not give orders.


"If you've got ground you don't need to plant right now, it's probably a good idea not to plant it," he said. "We see some instances of land being set aside. For other farms, it's a matter of economics: They've got to pay the bills, so they're going to keep farming until they can't farm anymore."

That's left the local economy "kind of at a breaking point," he said. Farmers have begun laying off workers in the surrounding area — and more layoffs are likely to come if the drought doesn't ease.

"I think there's a possibility it's going to increase exponentially," Vink said. Authorities will have a better picture by February, near the end of the winter, he said.

Scientists are heatedly debating whether the drought can be blamed on global climate change or whether it's just a few bad years. A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts called the current drought the worst in 1,200 years, suggesting that human influence is making major droughts more likely. Days later, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that natural patterns were to blame for the past three years — a finding that other scientists said ignored the role of a warming world in creating those patterns.

California is on the verge of charting its warmest year since recordkeeping began in the 19th century — a fact that Macon says is driving greater demand for water, as the already dwindling resource is made more scares by heightened evaporation rates.

"We have to talk about more storage in California," he told VICE News. "We have to talk about how we allocate water and how we enforce water conservation measures, both in urban areas and in agriculture."

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Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl