THE CURRENT STATE OF CALIFORNIA’S UNPRECEDENTED DROUGHT
California is currently in its fourth year of a severe drought. The United States Drought Monitor estimates
that over 90 percent of California is currently experiencing “severe”
to “exceptional” drought conditions. For farmers, the increasing
scarcity of water has been devastating. According to the American Farmland Trust,
California is home to 27 million acres of cropland. Nine million of
those acres are irrigated farmlands, requiring a steady water supply.
Crops typically requiring regular irrigation include vegetables (1.1
million acres), orchards and vineyards (3.1 million acres), and forage
crops (1.7 million acres). Roughly 7 out of 10 irrigated farms in
California depend entirely, or at least in part, on surface water
allocated from state and federal projects. In 2014, farmers received
zero water allocations from federal projects and only one-fifth of the
water that they would normally receive from state water projects.
The shortage of water for agriculture has forced many farmers to
fallow thousands of acres of their land in order to allocate what little
water they receive to producing a successful harvest. Some reports
estimate that in 2014 alone nearly half a million acres of California
farmland were fallowed as a result of the water shortage. Other farmers
have chosen to switch their crops to more drought-friendly varieties,
including GMO seed varieties designed to thrive in soil with lower
The Governor and Local Communities Take Action
Farmers have found some relief from favorable economic circumstances.
For example, decreasing fuel prices and a surge in American imports
have provided temporary relief from the crippling impact of the drought.
In many communities, residents have started sourcing their food from
local farmers and agricultural producers in an attempt to keep their
businesses going through these tough economic times. Some local grocers
are making an effort to source as much of their produce as they can from
local farms as opposed to importing fruits and vegetables from other
The State of California has taken action to help soften the blow of a
fourth year of severe drought. On April 1, 2015, California Governor
Jerry Brown signed an Executive Order mandating
water restrictions for all California residents. This is the first time
in California’s history that a mandatory water restriction has been set
into place to combat drought-related issues. As part of the mandatory
water cuts, residents will be required to reduce their water consumption
by 25 percent, or face daily monetary fines. The executive order
exempts farmers from the new requirement, noting just how badly many
farmers have already been impacted.
INCREASES IN FRUIT AND VEGETABLE PRICES
California: The Horn of Plenty
To truly comprehend the impact that California’s drought may have on
food prices, it is important to have an understanding of just how
crucial California’s agricultural industry is to the nation and the
world at large. Many people refer to California as the nation’s
breadbasket. The rich soil and ideal weather conditions make it some of
the most fertile planting soil in the world. It is no surprise,
therefore, that California produces 400 different types of agricultural
commodities and provides roughly half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
California is the nation’s leading producer of many food staples,
including avocados, broccoli, tomatoes, spinach, grapes, tree nuts, and
dairy. According to a study
conducted by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center,
in 2013 California exported $4.16 billion worth of almonds and over $2.4
billion in dairy products. Other key California exports include wine,
tree nuts, grapes, rice, cotton, and beef. Overall, the California
Department of Food and Agriculture reports that California’s 77,900 farms earned over $46 billion for agricultural exports in 2013.
Produce Prices are Predicted to Increase as a Result of the Drought
The extent to which California’s drought will have an impact on
produce prices depends on the overall severity of the drought and how
the drought affects total crop yields. When it comes to produce, the
most critical concern during a drought is the diminishing groundwater
supply, which is typically needed to provide consistent irrigation to
fruit and vegetable crops. In response to a groundwater supply shortage,
many farmers choose to plant a smaller amount of a particular crop, or
to plant an entirely different crop that is more tolerant to drought
According to the United States Department of Agriculture,
when it comes to fruits and vegetables, any production impacts that may
lead to price increases typically manifest at the supermarket shelves
within one month. Produce is highly perishable, meaning that farmers
cannot hold onto their produce until market prices are more favorable
and consumers are more willing to buy. Other factors affecting the price
of produce are labor wages, competitive imports, and fuel prices.
As a consequence of the growing scarcity of water for agriculture,
the prices of fruits, vegetables, and other food products are expected
to increase. For many farmers, the increasing cost of water and
fallowing of fields requires them to raise the prices of the their crop
How much of a price hike should consumers anticipate paying?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)
reports, “[i]ncreases in retail prices for fresh fruits and vegetables
in 2014 were primarily driven by an increase in the prices for citrus
fruit.” Additionally, “[p]rices for fresh vegetables fell in 2014 after
seeing higher than average price increases in 2013.”
These price increases will likely increase into 2015. USDA estimates
that during 2015 supermarket prices will increase an additional 2 to 3
percent over 2014 prices. In particular, fresh fruit prices should rise
between “2.5 to 3.5 percent and fresh vegetable prices 2.0 to 3.0
percent.” The USDA cautions, however, that California’s status as a
crucial food producer gives it “the potential to drive prices for fruit,
vegetables, dairy, and eggs up even further.” Ultimately, the USDA
predicts that produce prices will continue to rise.
Other researchers have echoed the USDA’s conclusions regarding the
escalating prices of produce as a result of California’s historic
drought. For example, a study
conducted by Timothy Richards at the W.P. Carey School of Business at
Arizona State University predicts that the California drought could
increase avocado prices up to 28 percent. According to the USDA,
California produces 88 percent of avocadoes consumed throughout the
United States. The study also concluded that the price of lettuce could
increase between 62 cents and $2.44.
Richards believes that the most significant produce increases will
occur with “avocadoes, berries, broccoli, grapes, lettuce, melons,
peppers, tomatoes, and packaged salads.” Additionally, the California Farm Bureau has “projected that the average American family will spend about $500 more on food this year because of the drought.”
Of course, estimations regarding potential food price increases are
not evaluated in a vacuum. Many other current events and factors play a
part in determining whether consumers will pay more or less for fresh
produce in the coming months. For example, the California Avocado Commission
reports that part of the reason for the increased price of avocados,
which rose 16 percent between 2013 and 2014, is the alternate bearing
cycle of avocado trees. One year, the tree will produce a high volume of
fruits, while producing substantially fewer fruits the following year.
In 2013, California’s avocado yield was estimated at 500 million pounds.
In 2014, total crop yield was projected at 350 million pounds.
Bridging the Gap with Imports from Abroad
Because California produces “nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and
vegetables,” finding sources from out of state to supplement the
drought’s impact on capacity is difficult. If the price of meat becomes
high, grocers can turn to other sources of protein, like eggs and fish,
to meet consumers’ needs. When it comes to fruits and vegetables,
however, there are no comparable replacements to meet consumers’ demand
for freshly grown food.
Since foreign countries that rely on California agriculture to meet their produce needs, like Canada,
have started locating potential backup suppliers. Argentina, South
Africa, and Australia offer bustling agricultural economies that may
help foreign food importers bridge the gap caused by California’s
drought. One impediment to sourcing produce from these other countries,
however, is the tendency of certain produce, like lettuce and fruit, to
perish during the journey. For example, citrus fruits and potatoes can
be stored on a transatlantic cargo ship for over a week. Berries,
fruits, and lettuces, however, must be kept at low temperatures and
consumed within seven days.
Despite the logistical hurdles that must be overcome when importing
produce from far away localities, some predict that California food
wholesalers, distributers, and grocers will have no choice but to import
food from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Current reports
indicate that a number of fruits, like peaches, are being imported from
Chile and are taking up a substantial share of California’s fruit
market. According to the United States Trade Representative, Chile was
the eighth largest source of agricultural imports for the United States
in 2013, providing fish, seafood, and $1.8 billion in edible fruits and
nuts. Mexico is the second largest supplier of agricultural imports for
the United States, providing $17.7 billion worth of fresh vegetables,
fruit, wine and beer, and snack foods. Canada is the largest source of
agricultural imports for the United States, totaling $21.8 billion.
STRATEGIES TO MITIGATE WATER LOSS
Despite the enormity of California’s drought crisis there are many
solutions and methodologies that can be used to help reduce water
consumption and to reduce the cost of each trip to the grocery store for
fruit and vegetables.
A New Water Paradigm Through Permaculture
At a more global level, a potential method for ensuring the optimization of water usage is Permaculture,
which integrates resources, people, land and the environment through
beneficial synergies. Permaculture enables farmers, urban
agriculturalists, and rooftop gardeners to imitate the “no waste, closed
loop systems” often observed in diverse natural ecosystems.
Permaculture utilizes holistic approaches to restoring balance in
ecosystems and ensuring that environmental assets, like land, water, and
air, are revitalized, recharged, and protected.
When it comes to water management, the development and implementation
of a water management system is an necessity. According to Geoff
Lawton, it is about “gravity irrigation systems, water harvesting swales
and simple systems”, when talking about the Permaculture Research
Institute’s site going through his shires largest drought in
a hundred years. Geoff continues on to explain that “even though the
local village was cut off from water and water was issued in the street,
we were able to continue to irrigate all kinds of crops, because we had
an oversupply of water”.
Simple Ways to Save Water Around the House
One method that can be used to combat the current paradigm’s incredible water waste is a composting toilet.
Composting toilets require little-to-no water, which enables users to
cut their water bills drastically. A “dry composting converts human
fecal material into a soil-like humus, which is essentially odorless and
is scarcely 10 percent of the original volume.” Dry composting
facilities are typically emptied once a year, depending on size, making
them a low-maintenance way to fight water waste right in your home.
Many features of our modern water paradigm are designed to perform one-time usages of
water. For example, “water enters a city, becomes contaminated with
human and industrial wastes, and leaves the city dangerously polluted.”
Current water systems allocate substantial amounts of water to the
clearing away of human waste, typically into a sewer system. The results
of this practice are devastating, and include disease, disruption of
nutrient cycles, river death, and the formation of so-called “dead
zones” in certain coastal areas.
Many regions have implemented water treatment facilities designed to
make use of wastewater instead of dumping into lakes, rivers, or oceans.
In California, Orange County constructed a $481 million treatment plant
that converts sewage into water that is used to replenish local ground
aquifers. As the California drought continues to affect farmers and
other water users, the “flush and forget” system may become less common.
Other ways to save water around the home include installing
water-efficient showerheads, toilets, laundry machines, and dishwashers.
In some localities, newly installed appliances must comply with water
efficiency requirements. If you cannot afford a low-flow toilet, simply
place one to two inches of pebbles inside the bottom of your water tank,
or fill two empty plastic bottles with rocks to weight hem down. This
strategy alone can save over ten gallons of water each day.
Additionally, do not let the water run while you clean produce. Fill the
sink or a pan with clean water instead.
Until legislators and policymakers adopt policies that encompass the
full spectrum of water sources, individuals should consider implementing
permaculture practices right in their backyards, rooftops, and homes.
At its heart, permaculture is a design science that can be applied to
any human habitat no matter how small the space may be.
According to Lawton, city environments are
especially in need of the benefits that permaculture has to offer. A
city block requires a remarkable amount of power and electricity to feed
the many businesses, homes, and utilities that cover its acreage. One
of the greatest features of permaculture is that it can be implemented
in almost any setting or environments. There are ways to integrate
permaculture practices even for folks who live in apartments,
high-rises, or multi-tiered condos. For example, if you live in an
apartment that features a balcony, consider growing sprouts or
When it comes to reducing water waste in cities, permaculture
provides a method for ensuring that surplus water is returned to the
environment or redirected to another source that can make good use of
the water. For example, some cities have implemented permaculture
streets, which feature controlled water runoff from hard surfaces
towards gardens and other growing plants in need of hydration. Because
cities are often burgeoning centers of design and intricate landscapes,
they provide the perfect habitat for implementing creative permaculture
For homeowners, front and rear lawns represent ideal opportunities
for implementing and experimenting with permaculture methodologies. In
many cases, the amount of chemicals and treatments applied to lawns
surpasses agricultural activities. Homeowners should consider converting
up to half of their lawns to gardens or back to natural habitat. One of
the greatest benefits of planting a home garden is the readily
available bounty of fruits and vegetables that it provides. As
Californians and produce consumers around the world begin to feel the
drought’s impact on the price of fruits and vegetables, low-cost,
home-based solutions may provide a solution. Permaculture offers an
easy, efficient, and affordable way to grow produce right at home.
To achieve ultimate synergy, permaculture focuses on the habits and
practices that characterize wild habitats like forests and pastures and
mimics them in a controlled environment. Forests typically feature many
different layers of vegetation growing side by side, including shrubs,
plants, and trees. Among these vegetation layers are insects and
animals. Each of these strands operate synergistically with one another
as an ecosystem. In permaculture, the integrated relationship between
all of these living things is known as a guild.
While traditional gardening practices teach individuals how to plant
gardens, permaculture focuses on equipping individuals to create and
maintain successful guilds right at home. Ultimately, permaculture is a
theory of design. Permaculture guilds typically have seven key
components: (1) food for humans; (2) food for the soil; (3) diggers and
miners; (4) groundcover; (5) climbers; (6) supporters; and (7)
protectors. Each of these components work together to create a thriving
Many water saving strategies
can be adopted for both permaculture gardens and traditional gardens.
First, only water a lawn when it needs watering. To see if your lawn is
in need of moisture, step on the grass. If the grass springs back up, it
does not need water. If it lays flat, the lawn could use a little
water. Intermittent deep-soakings are more effective at providing
moisture to parched soil instead of frequent light showers. Also, the
time of day that you choose to water can have an impact on how much of
that moisture reaches the garden or lawn’s roots. Try to water during
the night or early morning, and avoid watering when the sun is out or
when it is windy. Adding a thick layer of mulch near the base of plants
and tress can help retain moisture as it saturates through the soil.
Mulch is particularly helpful for gardens that rely on drip systems.
Composting is another helpful tool that can increase water retention. It
also provides a dose of minerals and nutrients to the soil and
vegetation. Many gardeners are surprised to learn that adding just one
pound of compost material can yield “40 pounds of water retention.”
Also, rain barrels can provide quick and easy surpluses of fresh water
during the rainy season, and add aesthetic character to your lawn or