As of July 2021, the drought monitor for California places 94.7% of the state in the category of Severe Drought and 33.3% is in Exceptional Drought, the highest category. The drought impacts many aspects of life, especially for famers whose financial livelihood depends on their crops. However, reduced rainfall, snowmelt and aquifers that have been overextended. This, combined with increased temperatures resulting from climate change, exacerbates an already difficult situation, forcing many farmers to make a difficult decision: plant crops or sell the water?
As water availability has become increasingly scarce, farmers have shifted their mindset, especially in the Central Valley; many are finding it makes more financial sense to sell their water than to plant their crops. Some farmers are selling all their water and planting no crops while others are leaving a portion of their land fallow and selling the water that would be used for that portion of land. However, these actions could have long ranging consequences. Somini Sengupta with The New York Times reports, “By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is projected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. That’s more than a tenth of the area farmed,” and if the water crisis isn’t resolved, nearly double that amount of land could remain fallow. This would have huge repercussions for the U.S. as California’s agricultural output is $50 billion, providing nearly two-thirds of the fruits and nuts and over a third of the vegetables to the nation.
Part of California’s drought strategy relies on farmers selling water, called water transfers. Rice farmers are an important component of this strategy having better access to water as they are typically located around the Sacramento River. With water selling at $575 per acre-foot, the farmers’ returns are comparable to that if they had grown the rice. Rice affords additional flexibility as fields can be left idle without affecting future crop output, whereas fruit and nut trees will die without water, leaving the farmer with nothing.
Some voice concern about shifting water setting a precedent: If a region can make do without the water now, why not in the future? Perhaps the situation is best encapsulated by Tim Johnson, President and CEO of the California Rice Commission, “The whole region has a water problem; the whole state has a challenge with water this year. We’re really trying to tackle it on a regional basis and use all the tools and relationships that we have to get through this year.”
 Sengupta, Somini. “It’s Some of America’s Richest Farmland. But What Is It Without Water?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 June 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/06/28/climate/california-drought-farming.html?referringSource=articleShare.
 Sengupta, Somini. “It’s Some of America’s Richest Farmland. But What Is It Without Water?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 June 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/06/28/climate/california-drought-farming.html?referringSource=articleShare
 German, Brian. “California Rice Acreage to Decline by One-Fifth Due to Drought.” AgNet West, 11 May 2021, agnetwest.com/california-rice-acreage-to-decline-by-one-fifth-due-to-drought/.
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