California’s snowpack is now so low that when Gov. Jerry Brown visited a measurement station on Wednesday, there was no snow to measure. “We are standing on dry grass, and we should be standing on five feet of snow,” he said. The low snowpack — at 6 percent of normal — is further evidence of the seriousness of the state’s drought as well as another reminder of the excruciating choices facing California’s citizens and policy makers as they struggle to cope with it.
The governor’s executive order imposing mandatory water use reductions of 25 percent on California’s cities and towns will help. But those restrictions don’t apply to California’s giant agriculture industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use. The order expands planning and reporting requirements for agricultural water use, but it does not impose specific cuts.
Farms in California draw water from three sources: federal and state water projects, waterways they have the right to divert and groundwater reserves. Two of these sources have been compromised by the drought. This year, the state water project will deliver only one-fifth of the amount requested by users; the federal water project will deliver zero. And farms with newer water rights have been told to stop drawing from the state’s waterways; some farms with older water rights have so far avoided such directives, though they may be affected in the future.
But there are no restrictions on tapping groundwater, and the state says it has no immediate plans to impose them. Officials say that groundwater reserves are meant to be a resource in a drought. That’s all well and good if the drought ends relatively soon, but prolonged tapping of groundwater can cause the land to sink, increasing flood risk and impairing the soil’s ability to store groundwater in the future. A 2013 report by the United States Geological Survey found that one area in central California had already subsided more than 20 inches between 2008 and 2010. And the tapping of groundwater even during nondrought years has made the problem worse.
A law passed in September requires local agencies to develop plans for groundwater sustainability, but it does not require them to actually achieve sustainability until 2040.
The agriculture industry has already felt the impact of California’s drought, with 400,000 acres of land left fallow last year, and $1.5 billion lost, according to state officials. But just as California’s residents will have to change the way they wash their dishes, take their showers and water their lawns, the state’s farms will need to change the way they operate if California’s drought continues. They simply cannot continue drawing on groundwater indefinitely.
Farmers can switch from flood irrigation or inefficient sprinklers to drip or microspray systems, which use less water. They can also invest in irrigation controllers that monitor water and soil conditions and deliver only as much water as crops need. And some may need to change what they plant. California farmers are already reducing their production of some water-intensive crops — in 2014 they planted 25 percent less rice than in the previous year and 34 percent less corn.
Innovation and efficiency will be required of agriculture businesses and of ordinary Californians, too. As Mr. Brown said last week, “This is the new normal.”