More than 97 percent of California is under at least “severe” drought conditions, raising the specter of difficult agricultural decisions in a state that produces a quarter of U.S. food.  

Farming is the main driver of water usage in the state, and the drought, now in its third year, comes alongside increasing pressure on California to bear more of the burden of Colorado River water cutbacks. 

As of Thursday, 97.52 percent of the nation’s most populous state is in a state of “severe” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while 99.76 percent is at least “moderate” drought. This time last year, 95.56 percent of the state was classified as under “severe” drought. 

Much of the drought has been concentrated in the northern part of the state, said Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center.

That’s important and a problem, since the Southern California gets much of its water supplies from the Sacramento Valley, he noted.

California produces more than one-third of U.S. vegetables and three-quarters of domestic fruits and nuts, including $5.23 billion in grapes, $3.02 billion in strawberries and $2.03 billion in lettuce in 2021, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. 

Much of this agriculture is concentrated in the state’s Central Valley, the source of about 8 percent of the nation’s crop output, and the Salinas Valley, the source of about $1.36 billion in lettuce in 2019. 

California is the senior-most state in the interstate agreement governing allocations from the Colorado River, which, in the Golden State, primarily goes to farming in the Imperial Valley. As a result, the state avoided any cuts in a new round of allocations announced by the Bureau of Reclamation in August, with the cutbacks focusing on Arizona and Nevada instead. 

“Arizona is taking the brunt of that [because] they’re the junior water user, if you will, on the Colorado. But it seems that all the states in the Colorado River Basin are going to have to decrease their use of Colorado River water,” Holly Doremus, James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd professor of environmental regulation at Berkley Law School, told The Hill. 

Separate negotiations are taking place after basin states missed an August deadline to agree to cuts to avert “dead pool” status in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Imperial Irrigation District and Metropolitan Water District, which serve the Imperial Valley and Los Angeles respectively, remain in talks as of this week.  

California’s size, combined with its seniority on water rights, means the overallocation of the river hasn’t severely impacted the state yet, but “there’s quite a bit of folks in in other states calling for California to make more of a sacrifice on the Colorado River,” Faith Kearns, an academic coordinator at the California Institute for Water Resources, told The Hill. 

For example, earlier this week, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), called on California to step up its contribution to water preservation, noting the state increased use of river water by 41 percent from April 2021 to April 2022. “The cuts necessary cannot possibly be borne by one or two states alone,” he wrote. 

Even aside from the river allocation, “there’s certainly concerns about the long-term viability of agriculture in many parts of this state,” said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences. 

Since California’s previous drought, which stretched from 2011-2016, the state has looked at ending groundwater overdraft, which occurs when more groundwater is used from an aquifer than enters it.  

“That by itself was going to require fallowing maybe half a million acres of irrigated land in California,” Lund said. “But as we’re seeing this warmer, drier climate, with perhaps greater frequency of droughts and floods, with climate change, in addition to the overdraft and the perilous state of some of the invasive species … California is probably looking at fallowing 1.5 or 2 million acres out of maybe 7 million acres of irrigated land, which is pretty substantial.” 

California’s agriculture industry irrigates about 9.6 million acres a year with 34 million acre-feet of water, and cutbacks would likely be achieved by paying farmers to plant less. 

Last year, drought conditions cost California agriculture about $1.1 billion as nearly 395,000 acres were idled, according to research from the University of California Merced

“Should dry conditions persist throughout 2022, a higher tier of adaptation measures may come into play to reduce economic impacts on agriculture and communities that host thousands of households relying on agriculture for a living.” Josué Medellín-Azuara, a professor at UC Merced’s School of Engineering and lead author of the report, warned in a statement. 

In addition to the agriculture needs, Los Angeles, the state’s most populous city, is located in one of the driest parts of the state, meaning California’s handling of water often turns into a sort of shell game even without the Colorado River issues, Doremus said.  

“We’ve been moving water around the landscape to support our forming and our cities, but there’s just not as much water as we expect to go around these days,” she said.  

“I think the cities will be fine, they’ll just have to buy more water,” Lund said. However, he said, if dryer conditions persist, “there will be some important local changes in some of those agricultural areas [like] the Imperial Valley and Paolo Verde as well … you will see a lot of the lower-valued agriculture going away.” 

Not all the indicators are going in the wrong direction for California. A year ago, 47.4 percent of the state was under “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest USDM classification. This week, the portion is down to 16.57 percent. 

“What we’re looking at, I think over the next 10, 20 years, is finding ways to move water from one use to another without drastically destabilizing our economy or our natural systems,” Doremus said.