Special Report | April 2012 | By Stephanie Ogburn

The State of Our Water

One of the most-used resources is never given much thought. It’s time for that to change.

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Take a drive through California’s Central Valley, and you’ll be driving through … well, not quite the breadbasket of the U.S., but more like its salad bowl. The area’s mild climate means farmers are growing something nearly year-round, be it lettuce, tomatoes, oranges, almonds, or even pomegranates. Dairy farms in the southern part of the valley round out the agricultural landscape; California produces more milk than any other state in the nation.

Your route will take you down Interstate 5, shooting through the west side of the valley, where at times you’ll cross over a shimmering canal. The network of aqueducts slicing through the region are part of the Central Valley Project, which brings irrigation water to these fields, some of the most productive in the nation.

For American restaurants, one of the most important crops grown in the valley is processing tomatoes. These are the tomatoes used to make salsa, ketchup, tomato sauce, soup—pretty much any food item containing tomatoes that aren’t served fresh-sliced.

But in 2008, the price of those processing tomatoes jumped 30 percent. “[They were] the highest prices we ever saw in the industry,” says Stuart Woolf, who farms a wide variety of vegetable and nut crops in the valley.

Woolf grows the full complement of Central Valley produce: pistachios, almonds, wine grapes, garlic, onions, peppers, lettuce, and, of course, tomatoes. At certain times of the year, Woolf and his fellow farmers in the state’s San Joaquin Valley produce a majority of the fruits and vegetables used in restaurants across America. But in 2008 and 2009, these farmers ran out of a vital ingredient in their production of those fruits and vegetables: water.

In the winters of 2007 and 2008, very little snow fell in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The lack of snow, which melts in spring and fills the state’s many rivers and reservoirs, led to statewide water shortages impacting cities and farmers. California’s Bay Delta relies on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which start in the Sierras and flow to the sea. Since California receives much of its precipitation in the winter, every summer, when farmers need water for their crops, many of them use water pumped out of the delta for irrigation.

Endangered fish live in the delta, too. They are part of an entire ecosystem of plant and animal life reliant upon the mixing of fresh water from those rivers with salty water from the San Francisco Bay. In 2008, when federal officials realized very little water was coming out of the mountains for the second year in a row, they told farmers they might not get the quantity of irrigation water they were used to receiving because the fish might need most of what remained.

Farmers were forced to make a choice: save their nut trees and vine crops, high-value plantings they already sank a lot of money into that would surely die if they did not receive water, or plant tomatoes. Most of them chose the former.

“If you have a big block of land and some of it is in permanent crops—almonds, pistachios, wine grapes—what you are going to do is use that water to protect those permanent crops,” Woolf says. “Whereas if it’s just open ground, maybe you don’t plant a crop of tomatoes or a crop of lettuce.”

With fewer tomatoes planted, the supply quickly dwindled and prices skyrocketed. But tomatoes weren’t the only crop affected. Tom Birmingham, the manager of Westlands Water District, which portions irrigation water out to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, says farmers planted 16,000 fewer acres of lettuce in 2009 than they did in 2006. “There was a 17 percent increase in price for lettuce harvested in California,” Birmingham says.

The winter of 2009–2010 finally brought reprieve to the state and its farmers. The Sierra snowfall was well above average that year and the following, and there has been enough water for fish and farmers the past two growing seasons.

But Woolf knows the next drought will come. In fact, as of March 5, the Sierra snowpack’s average depth was only 16.8 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Last year at this time, it was 41 inches. If this year and future years stay dry, it’s likely that farmers in California will once more be forced to choose between keeping their tree crops alive or growing the salad mix and salsa ingredients used in much of the nation’s foodservice industry.

Unfortunately, it’s not just in California that water shortages are a potential threat. Drought in Texas has significantly impacted food supplies from that state, and water-shortage conflicts between farmers and cities have also occurred in North Carolina and other Southeast states, where many poultry producers and hog and peanut farms make their home.

While today’s supply chains are nimble and suppliers can often as easily buy from farmers in China as they can in California, water shortages can have a significant impact on food prices, availability, and quality—particularly with fresh foods, or those costly or difficult to transport. And despite some recent precipitation in Texas, the National Weather Service’s outlook for the next three months shows drought persisting across the southern band of the U.S., from Georgia to Arizona, and also in California and parts of the Midwest.

How Water Shortages Happen

Agricultural water shortages are most often caused by drought, but they can also be caused by demographic shifts, political disruption, or even pollution of water resources. The latter happens more frequently in countries without water pollution laws. No matter the cause, water shortages created by any of these factors can affect the price, quality, and reliability of food.

While drought has always been a fact of life, particularly in agriculture, scientists predict climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the future. As the average temperature of the planet increases, climate models predict shifts in the amount of rainfall, with less precipitation in many agricultural areas.

In addition, average day and nighttime temperatures will be warmer in many regions, causing plants to use more water to survive. All this means that even as rainfall and the amount of water available decrease, agricultural needs for water will increase—a deadly combination for the nation’s crops and the businesses that rely on them.

Scientists expect climate change will even lead to drought conditions in places typically unused to water shortages. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit whose work focuses on environmental issues, reported that more than one-third of all U.S. counties will face increased risk of water shortages as a result of global warming. Four hundred of those counties, stretching from Florida to the Great Plains, will be at “extremely high risk” for such shortages.