By Kim Chipman
California’s historic drought may leave the state with the largest amount of empty farmland in recent memory as farmers face unprecedented cuts to crucial water supplies.
The size of fields intended for almonds, rice, wine grapes and other crops left unworked could be around 800,000 acres, double the size of last year and the most in at least several decades, said Josue Medellin-Azuara, an associate professor at University of California Merced.
The figure is preliminary as researchers continue to look at satellite imaging and other data. An official estimate remains a few weeks away, said Medellin-Azuara, who is leading an economic study on farm production and droughts with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Much of the idle land is in California’s Central Valley, which accounts for about a quarter of US food production. Mile after mile of farmland reveals withered crops next to fields of lush green plants, a testament to the tough decisions growers are forced to make on how much and what to produce, and whether to keep farming at all.
Surface water rights are seeing sharp cuts amid the drought and reserves are declining because of critically low snowmelt and depleted storage from last year.
“What’s really concerning is for the first time we are fallowing at least 250,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley,” Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said in an interview. “Those are the most senior water rights holders.”
Last year, some California farmers were stunned to find their so-called senior water rights restricted. Water laws in the state are governed by a complex system that dates back to the Gold Rush era. Senior rights holders — which include companies, growers and cities with claims that were acquired before 1914, and landowners whose property borders a river — are the last to see their supplies curtailed.
Sacramento Valley typically “acts a funnel” that provides key water supplies to the broader region, according to the Northern California Water Association.
New regulation of the use of groundwater is also complicating the supply picture in the state, Medellin-Azuara said.
California has roughly 9 million acres of irrigated land. Drought last year directly cost the local agriculture industry and state about $1.7 billion, according to UC Merced researchers.