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California's three-year drought ending earlier this year was poorly understood by the media and demonstrated how vulnerable the state's water supply could be in years ahead, especially as climate change brings prolonged dry years, a new report says.
The Pacific Institute, in a study released today, found that press coverage of the drought, which was declared over in March by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), focused on damage to agriculture that actually fared far better during the crisis than many expected.
Juliet Christian-Smith, the report's lead author, looked at state and federal data and found that agricultural revenues in 2007, 2008 and 2009 were among the highest on record for the state. And jobs related to farming in California remained stable in that period, she argued, even as the rest of the economy was hit hard by the toughest conditions in recent memory.
This happened despite the national media's intense focus on the agriculture industry in California's San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys during the worst of the drought. Among the outlets that focused on farms were CBS's "60 Minutes" and Fox News, which sent Sean Hannity to Fresno County in September 2009 to film his cable television show on location, during which he accused environmental concerns of undermining farmers.
The reality, says Christian-Smith, is that California's agricultural sector coped well with reduced water supply through a host of short-term solutions, including expanded reliance on local groundwater, temporary water transfers, fallowing and shifting crop patterns and types.
"These strategies proved highly successful," the report found. "Overall, California's 81,500 farms and ranches grossed $34.8 billion in revenue in 2009 -- the third highest year on record and just below the all-time high of $38.4 billion in 2008, the second year of the drought."
Job losses during the drought were felt in non-agricultural sectors like sales and construction, the report found, pointing out that the heartland of the state's farming belt in the Central Valley saw a 2 percent gain in agriculture-related jobs between 2003 and 2009 (though farm jobs fell off by about the same amount from 2007 to 2009). The same region saw a 44 percent drop in construction jobs from 2003 to 2009.
"These data show that unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley is a long-term problem, not simply the result of the recent drought," Christian-Smith said. "Hunger, homelessness and other signs of poverty are real and happening, and they are happening in wet years and dry ones."
The report goes on to acknowledge that high food prices helped to boost revenue, but the researchers also found that the rate of decline in harvested acreage -- which has been falling through the last decade -- "appears to have slowed" from 2007 to 2009.
'This state is precariously situated'
But Christian-Smith cautioned that the methods used to adapt are not, in her view, sustainable for longer periods of dry weather predicted for later in the century, which could be harsher and prolonged by global warming.
"California was relatively resilient in this last drought," she said. "But we have very little in the way of long-term adaptation or mitigation strategies. This state is precariously situated."
To Christian-Smith, the kinds of quick-hit adaptation methods that proved resourceful over the last three years would not do much to ensure long-term water security. Underground aquifers, for instance, were depleted, with the Central Valley's Westlands Water District pumping 19 times more groundwater in 2009 than in 2006.
Others have made similar arguments when justifying the need for building new reservoirs or looking into a canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which supplies water to 25 million Californians. Both have been cited as ways to prepare for droughts as well as floods that could be more common as the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada heats up (ClimateWire, Nov. 17, 2010).
But the Pacific Institute report insists more can be done to recharge groundwater supplies while improving efficiency and soil management and planting drought-resistant crops. The report does not advocate new infrastructure construction.
The report notes that the effect of the drought was unevenly distributed among water users because of a system many view as antiquated that doles out water to priority contractors first. Top-tier contractors in the state received 100 percent of their supply from the federal Central Valley Project throughout the drought, while other users received between 10 and 50 percent, the report says.
Christian-Smith also argued that the effects of the Endangered Species Act on water restrictions were oversimplified by the media and politicians. According to her figures, about one-quarter of water restrictions during the drought were due to environmental protections.
Remaining reductions were due to precipitation and runoff.
Finally, the most direct effect on carbon emissions during the drought was felt by the power sector, which had to turn to natural gas to offset losses in hydropower capacity. The switch lead to the additional emission of 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the report says.
Sullivan is based in San Francisco.