California’s unused farmland could double if water crisis deepens

California’s historic drought could leave the state with the largest amount of vacant farmland in recent memory as farmers face unprecedented cuts in crucial water supplies.

The size of the fields earmarked for almonds, rice, grapes and other tilled crops could be about 800,000 acres, twice the size of last year and the largest in at least several decades, said Josue Medellin-Azuara, an associate professor at the University of California Merced.

The number is preliminary as researchers continue to examine satellite imagery and other data. An official estimate remains a few weeks away, said Medellin-Azuara, who is leading an economic study on agricultural production and droughts with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Much of the unused land is in California’s Central Valley, which accounts for about a quarter of US food production. Mile after mile of farmland reveals wilted crops alongside fields of lush green plants, a testament to the difficult decisions growers must make about how much and what to produce, and whether to continue farming at all.

Surface water rights are being severely curtailed amid the drought, and reserves are declining due to last year’s critically low snowmelt and depleted reservoirs.

“What’s really worrying is that for the first time we have at least 250,000 acres left fallow in the Sacramento Valley,” Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said in an interview. “These are the oldest holders of water rights.”

Last year, some California farmers were stunned to find their so-called senior water rights were being restricted. The state’s water laws are governed by a complex system that dates back to the Gold Rush era. Older rights holders — including companies, growers and towns with claims acquired before 1914, and landowners whose property borders a river — are the last to have their supplies restricted.

According to the Northern California Water Association, the Sacramento Valley typically acts as a “funnel” that provides vital water supplies to the entire region.

A new regulation of groundwater use would also complicate the supply picture in the state, said Medellin-Azuara.

California has approximately 9 million acres of irrigated land. Last year’s drought directly cost the local farming industry, costing about $1.7 billion, according to researchers at UC Merced.

Bloomberg California’s unused farmland could double if water crisis deepens

Fry Electronics Team

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