An Impending Drought in the Garden of Eden?

March 30, 2010

Agriculture is central to California’s economy and culture.

Agriculture is central to California’s economy and culture. The Mediterranean climate - characterized by somewhat rainy winters and arid summers - and fertile soil, allow California to grow a variety of foods with relative ease. The Agricultural Water Management Council notes that California enjoys a greater diversity of food than any other region of the world.  In order to sustain this diversity, particular care needs to be put in place regarding water supply and sources. Farmers depend on the environment (water, soil composition and climate), as it is the essence of their livelihood. 
In a paper titled, Water and California Agriculture: Getting through the Next 40 Years, Richard Howitt, Professor and Dept Chair of the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at UC Davis, sets out a plan to overcome complications in California’s agriculture sector.  Although the issues discussed in Howitt’s paper are specific to California, they can certainly translate to other agricultural regions of the country.
Howitt believes that the interaction between land and water resources, production technology, and market growth and development in the past 100 years, are the main driving forces behind the structure of the current industry, and will absolutely determine future development.  The majority of land used for agriculture depends on irrigation; therefore water, not land, is the critical resource. Howitt believes that the uncertainty of the future of our water supply in terms of climate change, acute drought conditions, etc. is unsettling, but with improved technology and proper planning, may prove optimistic.  
Howitt divides his analysis into three time periods:
The pre-infrastructure stage, short term: the next 10 to 12 years. This is the time when strategic planning must take place in order to balance current supply with necessary irrigation. Howitt points out that this initiative involves local and county efforts as well as state and federal agencies.
The middle stage or time when infrastructure will be operational: 15 years. During this stage new irrigation facilities will be in place, but pose both economic and environmental issues.
And the final stage: the water scarcity stage, 40 years. During this time Howitt predicts that temperature increases due to climate change will influence water supply, but because of a shift in land use, crop substitution and improved irrigation, as well as farming techniques - the agricultural future of California actually ends up on top. 
It is imperative that we as a nation address these issues now; the uncertainties the future brings and the unpredictable weather patterns suggested as a result of climate change are not worth the gamble when it comes to our food supply. The population of California alone is expected to increase by approximately 10 million by 2030 and the water supply currently struggles to support its population. Evaluate your business practices regarding water use and question those of your suppliers- encourage sustainability and transparency.