The last 30 months have been the driest in California’s recorded history, dating back to 1895. If this trend continues, America will face not only higher food prices but also a paradigm shift in its agricultural infrastructure.
Currently, the Golden State produces almost half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. It grows over 200 different crops, some of which are grown nowhere else in the country. Its top earning exports are dairy products, grapes, almonds, greenhouse and nursery products, and cattle; and it produces almost all of the country’s almonds, apricots, olives, pistachios and walnuts. It also leads the nation in the production of avocados, lemons, peaches and strawberries.
With that lengthy grocery list to its name, California’s lack of water bodes ill for the country as a whole. It’s been 3 years of little to no rain for the state, which means no winter precipitation to refill its aquifers, no snowmelt from the mountains to refill the rivers, and no hope for farmers that are pumping their groundwater wells faster than they can be replenished. California farms soak up 80 percent of the state’s water supply and that supply is in sharper demand than ever.
B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist, says the water may never return in the volumes farmers need. In her book, The West Without Water, Ingram explains that the twentieth century was a much wetter one than its historical average. She predicts that California will experience 15 percent less precipitation than before, with climate change exacerbating the problem.
Also exacerbating the problem is the high demand for nuts that’s recently swept the nation. Big finance firms have devoted acres upon acres to nut farming, which sucks up more water than other crops (one almond requires one gallon of water to grow) and reduces acreage for lower-value row crops like cotton, rice and vegetables.
If California receives less water over the coming decades, it will drive up the prices of existing crops and shrink the amount of crops it can produce overall. Planting in alternative regions such as the Midwest would require a complete overhaul in its agricultural infrastructure, as the region’s climate and farms primarily grow grains intended for livestock.