Will California’s Drought Bring about $7 Broccoli?

The end of cheap fruits and veggies draws nigh. Here's why.

June 1, 2014 | Source: Mother Jones | by Tom Philpott

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When people tell you to “eat your veggies,” they’re really urging you to take a swig of California water. The state churns out nearly half of all US-grown fruits, vegetables, and nuts; farms use 80 percent of its water. For decades, that arrangement worked out pretty well. Winter precipitation replenished the state’s aquifers and covered its mountains with snow that fed rivers and irrigation systems during the summer. But last winter, for the third year in a row, the rains didn’t come, likely making this the driest 30-month stretch in the state’s recorded history. So what does the drought mean for your plate? Here are a few points to keep in mind:

The abnormally wet period when California emerged as our fresh-produce powerhouse may be over.B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California-Berkeley and author of
The West Without Water
, says the 20th century was a rain-soaked anomaly compared to the region’s long-term history. If California reverts to its drier norm, farmers could expect an average of 15 percent less precipitation in the coming decades, and climate change could exacerbate that. Less rain means more irrigation water diverted from already dwindling rivers-bad news for river fish such as the threatened delta smelt. Wells won’t save the state, either: Farmers are already pumping the groundwater that lies deep under their farms much faster than it can be naturally recharged.

Cotton out, orchards in. California farmers have increasingly turned toward orchard crops like nuts, grapes, and stone fruit. That’s because those crops bring more return for the water invested than lower-value row crops like cotton, rice, and vegetables. But they also make for less flexibility: A broccoli farmer can let land lie fallow during a drought year, but an almond farmer has to keep those trees watered or lose a long-term investment.