It’s been raining over the last couple weeks here in southern California. Don’t worry, I’m not complaining. I grew up in Michigan, so the degree to which natives of SoCal whine about all things weather-related remains a thorn in my side. That said, I commute to work on my bike, so it did present something of an inconvenience. I didn’t mind, though, as we really, really needed the rain. More importantly, northern and central California got a lot more precipitation than us, which is good because they needed it a lot more than us.
However, NASA was pretty quick to rain on everyone’s parade. Turns out, despite the 10 trillion gallons of rain dumped on California in this recent rainstorm, another 11 trillion would be needed to return things to normal.
Protected by an Urban Bubble
The scale and scope of the current drought in California probably hasn’t really hit home for most of the people in the United States – which is understandable, on some level. Even for people living in California, the actual effects of the drought are harder to see. We enjoy a massive water infrastructure that protects a large swath of the population from ever having to feel the sting of need. Water will flow from our taps pretty much regardless. Hell, people around Los Angeles are still watering their lawns. How bad could this “drought” really be?
However, the disconnect between the incredible scale of this drought and the way it’s affecting people’s everyday lives does a disservice to the importance of the moment. This is the worst drought to hit the region in over 1200 years. Let that sink in. That’s more than four times longer than the United States has even existed. That would mean that the last time there was a drought this bad, there was a good chance Charlemagne was still alive.
So why are we largely unaffected? Because the lion’s share of water in California is used primarily by farmers. California is, after all, the most productive agricultural sector in the entire country. The amount of water the state commits to irrigation utterly dwarfs that used for things like drinking water or golf courses. Urban water usage in California is a mere 10% of the total water used by the state, with irrigated agriculture representing four times that amount.
Drought Costs State (At Least) $2.2 Billion
To this point, the deepest dive on the cost of this drought was done by UC Davis, who laid out the following bill for the massive drought.
· $810 million in lost crop revenues
· $454 million in additional costs for pumping out water
· $203 million in lost dairy and livestock production
· 17,100 lost jobs amounting to another hit of $700 million
The total came to $2.2 billion, a massive hit that likely has California farmers reeling. So, push comes to shove, however neglible this drought may seem to us city dwellers, we’re not going to see the direct results. It’s the farmers who can tell you just how bad things are.
Of course, the economy is large and complex and there’s a lot of ways things can trickle down. In the case of California’s urban populations, while we may not see spiking water bills, we may see some of the impact of that lost farm revenues come home to roost for our own bottom lines.
Firstly, the hit on our grocery bills isn’t negligible. Farmers are already shifting resources to grow less water-dependent crops – meaning less corn and cotton. However, corn and cotton are less perishable products and ones with a robust commodities market that can help absorb swings in production before they hit consumers. Fruits and vegetables, however, have to get to market much faster and are more susceptible to the drought.
Timothy Richards, a professor of agribusiness at Arizona State University, predicted significant price spikes for a number of types of produce back in April, including a 28-34% jump in the price of lettuce, just under 30% for avocados, and an almost 20% jump for the price of tomatoes. Similar jumps in price for eggs, dairy products, and beef could all be coming as well.
There’s also likely to be major impacts in the energy sector as well. Most notably, lower water levels could greatly impact the state’s ability to generate electricity through its hydroelectric plants.
And that’s not including your tax bill. Obviously, it’s going to be an indirect effect again as California needs a ballot initiative to actually raise taxes, but the cost of this drought at the state level, both in lost tax revenues and increased spending to alleviate water issues, could come home to roost in other places through reductions in spending elsewhere.
With the backing of Governor Jerry Brown, California voters approved a $7.5 billion bond proposal to pay for improving our water system, the cost of which will be borne by California’s taxpayers in one way or another.
Every Drop Counts
I certainly feel pretty lucky that, despite living through the worst drought in California since the Holy Roman Empire’s heyday, my life hasn’t been seriously altered. I’m trying to do my little part with shorter showers and, ahem, flushing my toilet less frequently (despite all this reduced bathing and flushing, I inexplicably remain single), but it’s ultimately just a drop in the bucket. In the grand scheme of things, I wasn’t using enough water in the first place for my piddly little conservation efforts to make a real dent. Even if everyone in California did the same, it still wouldn’t be enough (even though it would help at least a little).
However, just because I’m living in a bubble that protects me from really feeling the effects of the drought doesn’t mean it’s not putting a real hurt on the rest of the state. Not to mention the country. As stated above, California is America’s largest agricultural producer, and continued reductions in output here could even start to tick up prices elsewhere. All told, the great California drought of 2014 may continue to put the squeeze on our pocketbooks for some time yet.
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