California’s years-long megadrought has left more than 531,000 acres of the state’s farmland unplanted, the US Department of Agriculture has revealed – leading experts to warn that supplies of key crops could become scarce during next year’s harvest.
At-risk crops include wheat, cotton, rice, and alfalfa, officials say, due to dwindling water levels and supplies incurred by the dry spell, which has pressed on for the past three years.
The increase in unplanted land represents a 36 percent hike from this time last year, shortly before California water officials warned citizens to prepare for another dry year after experiencing a significant lack of snow that winter.
The unprecedented dry period has put further pressure on the state’s roughly 70,000 farmers, whom have already been hopelessly hampered by inflation and pandemic-related supply chain backlogs.
The new estimates on the lack of acres farmed from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) cast a light on the plight of those farmers, who are struggling to procure water to irrigate their crops as the drought persists for a third year.
Meanwhile, the state’s two largest reservoirs are currently at historically low levels – indicating that its inhabitants, like much of those in the rest of the US West, can expect a scorching, dry end to this summer, further compounding the crisis.
The unprecedented dry period has put further pressure on the state’s roughly 70,000 farmers, whom have already been hopelessly hampered by inflation and pandemic-related supply chain backlogs
Making matters worse is that the state’s two largest reservoirs – Lake Shasta (pictured) and Lake Oroville (not pictured) are currently at historically low levels – indicating that its inhabitants, like much of those in the rest of the US West, can expect a scorching, dry end to this summer
The USDA’s analysis of the current, sad state of California’s farmland depicts three different categories of unplanted land: fallow – cropland in dry regions left unplanted to rehabilitate the soil; prevented – land left unplanted because of natural disasters and recorded for crop insurance purposes; and idle – all other unplanted land
At-risk crops include wheat, cotton, rice, and alfalfa, officials say, due to dwindling water levels and supplies incurred by the dry spell, which has pressed on for the past three years
‘It’s true that things are not great now,’ Aaron Smith, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, told The San Francisco Chronicle Monday of the graveness of the Golden State farmer’s situation.
He added that crops most likely to be affected by the prevailing water shortages – which have helped fuel the above-average amount of forest fires seen in the state so far this year – are water-intensive field crops, such as rice and cotton, which have already been on the decline for the past year.
Government efforts to supply these farmers with water, meanwhile, have so far proved unsuccessful, as even federal officials have had trouble procuring the all-important liquid as water levels plummet and wildfires worsen the state of affairs.
The USDA’s analysis of the current, sad state of California’s farmland depicts three different categories of unplanted land: fallow – cropland in dry regions left unplanted to rehabilitate the soil; prevented – land left unplanted because of natural disasters and recorded for crop insurance purposes; and idle – all other unplanted land. Prevented land now makes up the vast majority of unplanted acres in California.
Cattle graze amid drought conditions near Ojai, California, struggling to consume food due to the lack of fresh grass and crops
An aerial view of the cattle grazing shows the extent of the damage caused by the drought, which has left farmers with a fraction of what should be their fertile land
A farmer stares at his once blooming tomato field in Winters California on August 12, that has now become barren due to the megadrought
Prevented acres in particular represent land made barren as a result of natural disasters, such as drought and forest fires.
With that said, the number of prevented acres in the state has more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, from 188,800 to a whopping 384,200.
Those estimates are based on reports provided to the federal government by farmers, and likely undersell the real magnitude of the disaster, experts warned.
‘When we look at the drought’s impact on agriculture, it’s not only the producers, the farmers that are impacted,’ Navdeep Dhillon, farm program chief for the USDA Farm Service Agency’s California office, told the Chronicle.
By producers, Dhillon is referring to the thousands of processing and distribution centers, harvesters, drivers, and other workers who allow the farmers to do their job.
Livestock is seen in a dry field near Sacramento during extreme weather conditions – which experts say serve as the latest sign of climate change in the western United States
Diminishing water levels have seen the state’s landscape shift drastically, exposing previously submerged lakebeds due to the extremely warm weather
The state’s water supply systems have also fallen on hard times during the drought, with this irrigation near Fillmore, California, carrying only a light flow of water amid drought conditions
What’s more, if one takes into account the dire situation these Californians are facing, the crisis is undoubtedly worse than the Department of Agriculture study already suggests.
Smith, a respected agricultural economist, added that a drop in crop production should not come as a surprise considering the situation, as the state continues to set limiters and regulations on water usage to protect their rapidly diminishing supply.
The agricultural expert added that he expected this year’s count of unused acres to be even larger, considering the severity of drought and the influx of forest fires in the region.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state has already surpassed its five -year average of fires – 5,412 – just two-thirds into the year.
Currently, the state has seen 5,657 forest fires – including July’s raging Oak Fire, which threatened the state’s iconic Yosemite National Park by burning more than 19,000 acres of land in the area – roughly 10 percent all acres burned up by this year’s blazes.
Other nearby regions, such Nevada and Arizona, have also been affected by drought conditions. A ‘bathtub ring’, a white band of mineral deposits showing previous water levels, is visible at Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam at the Nevada and Arizona border, due to falling water levels. The lake supplies water to more than millions of people and acres throughout California
Last month, the lake dropped to just a quarter of its fill capacity, with the water level at its lowest since being filled in 1937
A dried up irrigation canal can be seen here on a California cucumber farm near Tracy. The state’s water supply system has been hit hard by the three-year-long drought
Most of the state, meanwhile, is feeling the effects of the drought US Drought Monitor data shows, with about 17 percent of the state – mostly in the Central Valley – experiencing what is known as an ‘exceptional’ drought, or a drought with heightened fire and water shortage risks.
‘That’s going to mean less water available for agriculture in certain parts of the state, most likely,’ Smith said. ‘We will see some reductions in land use and certainly, I would expect less alfalfa, rice, cotton and wheat, which have been declining anyway.’
The situation described by Smith has farmers already struggling with inflation taking extreme measures to cut losses incurred by the drought – with the Farm Bureau Federation estimating that more than a third of farmers in the state are killing off their existing crops and sell their livestock amid the ongoing conditions.
Farmers in the state are going as far as to sell – or even kill – their livestock amid the ongoing conditions. Pictured are cows in a dry field near Sacramento earlier this month
A herd of goats graze on drought-stressed land as part of city wildfire prevention efforts on August 9 in Anaheim
In addition to the livelihoods of roughly 70,000 farmers, the dry conditions could threaten the wellbeing of millions of animals at the state’s copious amount
According to a new report from the firm – an insurance company and lobbying group that represents agricultural interests – 37 percent of farmers from the Great Plains through California are killing off crops that won’t reach maturity – up 13 percent from last year.
One-third of farmers have also reportedly been destroying or removing orchard trees and other multi-year crops, according to the bureau – up from 17 percent the year before.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of respondents reported selling off portions of their herd or flock to help rescue their bottom lines.
The drought has left millions in the state without water, causing the US Bureau of Reclamation to issue an emergency requests urging citizens to reduce their water usage over the next year and a half to compensate.
A dry-up area of the Shasta lake – the largest reservoir in the state – is seen while extreme weather conditions including record-breaking heat waves are the latest sign of climate change in the western United States
An aerial view of a forest killed by carbon dioxide near drought-shrunken Horseshoe Lake which may again release deadly levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, near Mammoth Lakes, California
Cattle ranchers have been forced to sell off livestock and sent them to the slaughter ahead of schedule with weather conditions so bad that they are not able to be looked after properly and be kept healthy
Worsening the matter is the fact that this week, officials confirmed that Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir, was at just 55 percent of its total capacity – after it reached its highest level for the year last month.
Meanwhile, Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, was at 40 percent capacity last month – after the state endured its driest start to a year since the late 19th century.
The massive California fire comes as more than half of the country is now experiencing some form of drought for the fourth week in a row with no region of the country free from the harsh conditions.
Experts attribute much of water loss to evaporation caused by unusually extreme heat and low humidity seen in the area over the past decade, similar to the phenomenon currently occurring in the American Southwest, which has also been at the mercy of a megadrought – on that’s lasted more than 20 years.
A combination of extreme heat coupled with low amounts of rainfall is also pulling moisture from plants and soil resulting in tinder dry conditions, ripe for wildfires.
Wildfire season has become longer and blazes more intense, scorching temperatures have broken records and lakes are shriveling.
While it may come as no surprise that the western portion of the country including California is enveloped in a drought which has lasted for several years, even the northeast of the country is now experiencing a ‘flash drought’.
Wildfire season has also become longer and blazes more intense, scorching temperatures have broken records and lakes are shriveling. A Billings 4AJ helicopter makes a water drop at the Oak Fire near Mariposa, California last month
Meanwhile, he states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine are all experiencing drought.
‘Short-term moderate and severe drought continued to expand, especially in the New York City area, New Jersey, and New England, where rainfall was sparse and temperatures were a few degrees above normal,’ the Drought Monitor said.
Residents in northeastern states are being asked to be prudent with how they are using water.
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont asked residents to use less water in mid-July in the hope of prolonging the drought.
There is no sight of the drought abating any time soon with ‘temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above normal across the Northeast and New England on Thursday and Frida afternoon, where it will feel like the upper 90s and 100s,’ according to CNN.
Los Padres Hotshots firefighters seen last week battling California’s largest wildfire of the summer near Yosemite National Park in July
A combination of extreme heat coupled with low amounts of rainfall is also pulling moisture from plants and soil resulting in tinder dry conditions, ripe for wildfires
Similar conditions to those in the Northeast are also being repeated in the Midwest and South, but there are also incidents of extreme rainfall resulting in flash flooding in Missouri and Kentucky.
Scientists say that as climate change continues and the planet warms, there is likely to be extreme conditions at both ends of the spectrum.
In other parts of the country, the drought has also continued to expand both in the Southern Plains and in Texas where temperatures are warmer than normal.
‘Drought impacts across Texas ranged from crop failure to water supply problems, in one case from a well failure,’ the Drought Monitor reported.
Despite the area being familiar with triple digit temperatures, cattle ranchers have been forced to sell off livestock and sent them to the slaughter ahead of schedule with weather conditions so bad that they are not able to be looked after properly and be kept healthy.
Flames make an upslope run at the McKinney Fire, in the Klamath National Forest near Yreka, California, on Tuesday. At least four people are now known to have died in the wildfire
River-front property in the community of Klamath River lies in ruins after it burned in the McKinney Fire in the Klamath National Forest, northwest of Yreka, California, in late July
Only one region of the country saw conditions improve. The Texas Panhandle and eastwards into Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Mississippi, together with parts of Tennessee experienced heavy rainfall last month, leading to an improvement in conditions.
Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
California has seen its largest, most destructive and deadliest wildfires in the last five years.
In 2018, a massive blaze in the Sierra Nevada foothills destroyed much of the city of Paradise and killed 85 people, the most deaths from a U.S. wildfire in a century.