California Droughtby Carole Allen Multiure Salesperson of the Year 2012
Drought study refutes criticism of environmental measures
| Thursday, Jun 16 2011 12:05 AM
new study pours cold water on claims that environmental protections
worsened the economic impact of California's 2007-09 drought, even as it
highlights significant losses to Kern County farmers as a result of
Released today by Oakland-based think tank The Pacific Institute, the report finds that less than a quarter of water delivery cutbacks in 2009 stemmed from environmental restrictions, and that contrary to industry statements, the Central Valley's agricultural sector did not suffer disproportionate job losses during the drought. In fact, it says California farmers enjoyed record sales during the water shortage.
Even so, the study's authors acknowledge that strong produce prices lessened the financial harm suffered by farmers during the drought. The report also credits mitigation efforts -- greater use of local groundwater, temporary water transfers and fallowing farmland, among other measures -- that would have been of limited use if the relatively mild three-year drought had been longer or more severe.
The study also notes that the crisis was felt unevenly across the valley, with Fresno County seeing a 2 percent increase in agricultural revenues during the same three drought years that Kern experienced a 9 percent decrease in both revenues and harvested acreage.
Aside from calling into question some of the blame directed at the Endangered Species Act during the drought, The Pacific Institute concludes that California should do more to prepare for the possibility of future droughts -- not only to help farmers but to safeguard the environment and reduce the need for more natural gas-fueled power generation when hydroelectric sources fall short.
Agriculture, energy and the environment remain "highly vulnerable to future droughts and should develop more comprehensive drought planning and mitigation measures to reduce the potential for human, environmental and economic harm," the report states.
Much of the report focuses on the drought's impact on agriculture in the Central Valley, where some of the criticism of environmental protections during the drought originated.
In a section focused on Kern County agriculture, the study notes that average farming revenues here between 2007 and 2009 exceeded their 2000 levels by 28 percent.
But the report also shows that Kern citrus growers suffered during the water shortage, noting that the county's 2009 citrus yield was 37 percent below 2006 levels. It says Kern's citrus farmers lost more than $150 million between 2008 and 2009.
By comparison, the county's other two top crops -- grapes and almonds -- weathered the drought relatively well, with Kern's grape yield falling only 10 percent and the almond yield declined 16 percent between 2008 and 2009. Strong prices offset some of the decline in yield.
Dick Minetti, a long-time agricultural producer who grows oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and other citrus on a 30-acre ranch in east Bakersfield, said he withstood the drought fairly well because he had the foresight to install a drip irrigation system in the 1970s. By depositing water slowly and directly into the soil, such systems have less evaporation and soil erosion than traditional above ground sprinkler systems.
"The people who invested in good conservation systems were in a much better position during the drought," Minetti said. "Our trees stayed alive. They probably weren't the best, but they were alive."
It is the future that growers should be concerned about, said Joe MacIlvaine, president of Paramount Farming Co., which grows citrus and nuts, among other fruit.
"We had some good years because we had invested heavily in banking water supplies in previous years," he said. "But we drew down our reserves to very low levels, and we're only just now starting to replenish.
"The impact on the whole southern San Joaquin Valley was obscured somewhat by our ability to rely on groundwater, but that is not going to go on indefinitely. Over a period of time, we need to be able to import a water supply to balance out what we're using."
The Kern County Water Agency said the report didn't accurately reflect the reality facing Kern County farms, families and businesses.
"In fact, the document notes that a California Department of Water Resources analysis concluded that 25 percent of the state's water supply impacts are related to regulatory restrictions. This is substantial," said agency General Manager Jim Beck.
This year, California's snowpack peaked at about 173 percent of the April 1 average of snow water content, yet State Water Project participants have received only 80 percent of the water they need and paid for, Beck said.
"We are not going to be able to bank as much water as we need to get us through the next drought, and Kern County farmers will likely have to pay more than $20 million to buy supplementary water to sustain their operations," he said.
Beck also contends the report underestimated the impact on agriculture jobs by focusing exclusively on authorized workers, even though undocumented workers may account for as much as half of the agricultural workforce.
"It is unclear how, from this data, valid conclusions can be reached," Beck said.
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