In the fall, the Sacramento Valley rice paddies typically turn a golden brown as they await harvest. This year, however, many fields remained covered with bare earth.
“It’s a disaster,” said rice farmer Don Bransford. “It’s never happened before. Never. And I have been working in agriculture since 1980.”
Bransford typically farms about 1,800 acres of rice. But the drought has been so severe this year that water supplies to area farms have been drastically cut. Bransford, chief executive officer of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, has not planted a single acre. Many other farms were also left lying around.
California has just endured the state’s driest three-year period on record, and this year the drought has pushed fallow land use to a new high.
In a new report on the economic impact of the drought, researchers estimated that California’s irrigated farmland shrank by 752,000 acres, or nearly 10%, in 2022 compared to 2019 — the year before the drought. That was an increase from an estimated 563,000 acres of fallow farmland last year.
Almost all of the farmland that remained unplanted and dry falls in the Central Valley and much of it in the northern half of the valley. The state’s main rice-growing areas in Sutter, Colusa and Glenn counties were hit particularly hard, with about 267,000 acres left fallow this year, according to the report.
“The severity of the prolonged drought was unprecedented for the Sacramento Valley,” said Josué Medellín-Azuara, water resources economist and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Merced. “It was worse last year and you have the cumulative effects of the previous dry years.”
Medellín-Azuara and colleagues from UC Merced, UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California prepared the report for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They estimated changes in irrigated area by surveying irrigation districts, analyzing water data, and checking satellite data.
They found that Central Valley water supplies were reduced by almost 43% in both 2021 and 2022. Producers partially offset these reductions by pumping more groundwater.
Gross crop receipts fell $1.7 billion, or 4.6%, this year. Revenue from the state’s food processing and manufacturing industries fell nearly $3.5 billion, or 7.8%.
An estimated 12,000 agricultural jobs were lost, a 2.8% decline.
“These farm workers suffer the most from the droughts,” Medellín-Azuara said.
The researchers said California lacks adequate programs to help workers who are losing their farm jobs. They said it is crucial to “identify and support communities that depend on seasonal and permanent agricultural jobs that are vulnerable to drought.”
The amount of farmland that remained dry that year exceeded the peak of fallow land during California’s last drought of 2012-2016.
Medellín-Azuara said the situation could have been worse this year if the reservoirs that feed the San Joaquin Valley hadn’t increased somewhat with rain in late 2021, allowing for more water supplies.
Still, the losses to agriculture were severe.
“It’s a truly remarkable achievement,” said Daniel Sumner, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. He said the impact on the agricultural economy in the Sacramento Valley, which typically has more water and fares better than the San Joaquin Valley, is particularly pronounced and represents the biggest contraction he’s seen in the region in decades.
High milk prices helped mitigate the overall decline in farm revenues, Sumner said. And farmers made various adjustments to cope with the reduced water supply.
“We have reduced cotton. We’re trimming some other crops. And for the most part, we continue to produce the fruits and vegetables that we’re best known for,” Sumner said. “California agriculture is incredibly resilient.”
However, pressures on agriculture are increasing as climate change triggers more intense and prolonged droughts and heatwaves that can affect crop yields.
Over the past two years, producers have dramatically increased groundwater pumping in the Central Valley, including many areas where water levels are falling and a growing number of domestic wells are dry. The researchers estimated that farms pumped 27% more groundwater this year than in 2019.
Such a heavy reliance on wells will face new constraints in the years to come. Local water authorities in the San Joaquin Valley are required to limit overpumping under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires them to bring water use into line with available supplies by 2040. Researchers have predicted that compliance with the law’s sustainability rules will require such large areas of farmland to be permanently removed from production.
Farmers with wells could previously rely on aquifers. But in areas where rice farms have long depended solely on the Sacramento River, many growers don’t have wells. Without water flowing in canals, farmers were left with no options.
California harvested the state’s smallest rice crop since the severe drought of 1977-78, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“Usually we grow about 100,000 acres of rice in our district. And this year we planted 1,000 acres,” said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. “It’s just a massive, massive impact.”
Because the Sacramento River watershed had dried up and Shasta Lake was at low levels, wildlife officials provided some water to support winter spawning of the endangered chinook salmon, which contributed to the cuts in water supplies to the farms, Bettner said .
“Unfortunately, this protection for the winter run didn’t help the fish,” Bettner said. “Basically, we see that very few of them survive.”
Now many rice farmers are worried about what might happen if the drought continues next year, Bettner said. “We are very concerned with how many small family businesses that we have in our district remain in business.”
Bransford said he has crop insurance and can get compensation for the rice he can’t grow. He kept a few employees on his payroll. But much of the region’s agriculture has shrunk, leaving many workers suffering.
“It’s devastating,” Bransford said. “The biggest impact is on farm workers.”
“They are an embedded, important part of our community,” he said. “And the problem we have as farm owners is that when these people leave, there’s no replacement.”
California farms primarily produce short- and medium-grain japonica rice, which is used for sushi and other dishes. The rice is sold domestically and also exported to Asia and other parts of the world.
The region’s vast paddy fields have long provided habitat for migratory birds, which over the last century have lost most of the natural wetlands where they once stopped to rest and feed.
After growers have harvested their crops, fields are usually left with crushed rice straw and fallen grains. Farmers will again let water flow to the fields, attracting geese, ducks and other birds that come in large flocks to feed.
With many fields now bone dry, Bransford and other farmers say they are concerned about how the birds and other species will fare.
The California Rice Commission said this year’s rice harvest is estimated to be about half of a typical harvest. The organization said the drastic water cuts have also dried up once reliable habitats for more than 200 wildlife species, including migratory ducks and geese, which typically depend on paddy fields for much of their food during the fall and winter.
Tim Johnson, the commission’s president and CEO, said the water shortage is now threatening millions of wetlands and could affect the flyway along the Pacific Flyway. He said while the long-term environmental impacts are unknown, rice farmers have been working with government agencies and conservation groups to provide as much habitat as possible and “to help track the impact of this historic drought on waterbirds with the goal of using this science.” to better serve Pacific Flyway in the years to come.”
On the west side of the Sacramento Valley, waterfowl typically roam between wildlife sanctuaries and rice paddies. As water supplies to local wildlife sanctuaries were cut this year, Bransford said the government irrigation district was selling extra water to feed the habitats.
With fewer paddy fields to turn to, the birds are likely to concentrate where there is water, Bransford said. And such concentrations of birds can lead to outbreaks of avian botulism or other deadly diseases. A wave of bird flu has already killed millions of birds in parts of North America and is circulating in California.
“Hopefully it won’t affect the waterfowl. But there is potential for that,” said Bransford.
Because migratory birds encounter parched landscapes elsewhere, “it’s going to be really difficult for them.”
While the dry fields show the immediate toll of the drought, farmers expect it could take a year to determine just how severe the ecological impact will be.