As California enters a fourth consecutive year of drought, the state's farmers have to make some tough decisions: either use what little water they have to grow crops or idle their fields and sell off the water instead. Faced with strict water limitations, some farmers have chosen to let their croplands go fallow and sell their water rights back to the state. But an official with California's Department of Water Resources warns this is only a temporary solution to easing the tension between the state's water woes and agricultural needs.
While the state has imposed rather modest requirements on the general public—don't water your grass if it has rained in the last 48 hours and don't serve water to people at restaurants unless they ask for it, for example—California's agricultural sector has had to manage more austere restrictions. The state provides water via its reservoirs and aqueducts to 29 different contractors each year, which deliver water to cities as well as farmlands. This year, it's only delivering 20 percent of its requested amounts.
The Central Valley Project, a federally-managed project that supplies water for agricultural contractors, also announced it would be supplying very little water this year—many contractors wouldn't receive any water at all, for the second year in a row. Last year, with the state facing similarly dire conditions, half a million acres of cropland went fallow in California.
"A lot of farms have been put into fallow," Doug Carlson, an information officer with the DWR, told me last week when we chatted about the current drought conditions. "The problem is you can't do that with orchards that grow things like pears, olives, and almonds. Once the crop goes in as a tree crop, you're pretty much obligated to continue to water them or lose your investment. The groundwater, therefore, has been the major source for farms."
For farms that can't go fallow, water rights—the right to use water on or near one's own property, either above or below ground—have been the lifeline. But for farmers who are able to leave their croplands idle for a season or two, those water rights are just as valuable: anxious municipalities like Los Angeles are paying farmers as much as $700 for one acre-foot of water (an average household consumes about half an acre-foot of water in one year). Last year, water rights were selling for $500 per acre-foot. With low reservoirs and only a skiff of snow this year, demand could drive the price higher still.
Selling water rights is a good way for farms to stay afloat while also curbing their water consumption, but when it comes to groundwater in particular, there is a "whole basketful of problems," Carlson said.
"You're using an underground resource of unknown size, frankly," Carlson explained. "Whatever amount of water is down there, it's harder to get to. Wells are a lot deeper than they used to be. People used to go down 20 or 30 feet and find water. Now, you might have to go down hundreds of feet, if you find it at all."
And there are some other troublesome factors to this short term solution. A study published last year found California had been approving water rights agreements for five times as much water as there actually is in the state, so the rights being sold might not be able to deliver. And many of California's most water-intensive crops are the ones that can't go fallow, like one of its largest exports: almonds. Almonds grow on trees and thus can't be left to die, and by one estimate, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce just one almond.
Having a few farms sell off their water to cities while other farmlands drink up massive amounts of the state's water isn't a long term solution. California's agricultural sector is going to have to shift if long, severe drought seasons continue to plague the state. But Carlson was optimistic there could be a balance between the state's water conservation needs and its lifeblood agricultural industry.
"California has had longer periods of drought even in the historical record. It's not something you like to have to confront, but California has managed to see itself through past droughts," Carlson said. "It can do so again if people are all in the same canoe and paddling in the same direction."