THE BLOG
01/20/2015 06:24 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

You Need to Know: About That Drought

Photo by cuellar via Getty Images

So maybe you've heard that Californians are going through a dry spell. In fact, things are really rough, with dry, gravely ground; wilting, exhausted lawns; and residents who would just like to take a long, carefree shower (even as they are encouraged to report water wasters). Instead, after the four-year stretch of record-breaking dry spells, California's government is cracking down on water consumption both for individuals and farms. Of course, hydration is essential for plant growth and livestock, so now the question is: How will California's drought affect eaters and cooks across the country?

Wait, what's happening in California?

2014 is expected to be California's hottest year on record. 2014 was officially the driest year on record since 1977. Some towns are literally running out of water, residents are being asked to conserve water, and farms are feeling the drought in ever more severe extremes.

"In year three of a punishing drought, the terrible question arises: What if it just never rains again?" asks Dana Goodyear in The New Yorker. In the Central Valley, "nearly half a million acres of crops have been fallowed, and in some communities unemployment is more than ten per cent," Goodyear notes.

What used to be the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, Tulare Lake, is now waterless, and California's second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, is nearing a record-low level.

Why does this affect the rest of us?

Ever try to grow oranges in Chicago in February? The rest of us depend on California and its farmers. California farms grow nearly half of the nation's fruits and vegetables, including 90 percent of the grapes, 80 percent of the citrus, 70 percent of our lettuce, 76 percent of the avocados, and almost all the almonds. This year, harvests are far smaller than previous years. California is home to a $43.5 billion agriculture business that is set to lose $2.2 billion in revenue this year due to drought-related set backs.

So how bad is the situation?

Farmers are losing their crops as well as limiting their harvests. 420,000 acres will not be planted this year--that's about 5 percent of viable farmland--as the quantity of water available for crops has been reduced by two-thirds. 80 percent of the water used in California usually goes to agriculture. According to the California Rice Commission, one fourth, or 140,000 acres, of the state's rice fields went fallow. This loss will be felt in markets across the nation as well as internationally. Fresno County, the number one farming county in the nation, has the potential to lose up to a quarter of its orchards and fields this year due to lack of water.

Because of this, fresh fruit prices are expected to increase by 5 to 6 percent in 2014 across the nation, including a huge spike in the wholesale price of lemons. Wine, pistachios, cheese, tomatoes, and more will also experience market shifts.

Expect almond prices to skyrocket as well, executive chef Robert Helstrom says. Farmers are "cutting the trees down because they don't have enough water to keep them alive," he told KTU.

Will these numbers get worse?

Probably. At the moment, farmers are pumping underground water supplies and borrowing from irrigation districts. Eventually, those reserves will run out.

"One of the reasons that agriculture hasn't done worse this year is because of the tremendous amount of groundwater withdrawal that took place," Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told the Los Angeles Times. "That's essentially borrowing on tomorrow's future. We'll pay that price over time."

Is this loss limited to produce?

Sadly, no. Rising produce prices mean rising costs for you, me, restaurants as well as farmers who use feed for their cattle. Hay prices have doubled in California. Some ranchers are sending their herds out of the state to graze. Others, who cannot afford to relocate their herds, have been forced to sell. The number of U.S. cattle has dropped from 102 million to 88 million, the smallest amount since 1951. Because of the drop in beef production, beef prices are rising as demand remains just as high as ever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates beef and veal prices will rise by 6.5 to 7.5 percent in 2014. All meat, poultry and fish will rise 4 to 5 percent.

Higher milk prices are also the result of the drought, consequently causing cheese price to rise as well. A San Joaquin Valley organic dairy farmer told NBC News that he went out of business due to low inventory. Dry conditions kept him from growing the green grasses necessary to feed his cattle and he quickly ran out of milk to sell.

Another victim of the draught may include the 460 beloved California craft brewers. Gordon Biersch Brewing Company in San Jose uses 2.5 gallons of water to make one gallon of beer, much like other brewers. If water companies impose a 20 percent water use reduction, beer makers worry about their ability to stay afloat.

The one area of agriculture expecting a win? Wine. Some vintners are saying the reduced water has helped produce smaller berries with highly concentrated flavors, resulting in exquisite wines. Other small victories within the sorrows: peppers are hotter and tomatoes are sweeter.

What do these changes mean for restaurants?

"Some items have become harder to find at a reasonable price," Chef Patrick Mulvaney writes in the Sacramento Bee. "During the past year, restaurants have changed their menus to reflect higher meat prices, sudden collapses in citrus yields and the lack of products as farmers are forced to let their land lie fallow."

Nopalito, an organic Mexican eatery in San Francisco had to find a new supplier of organic masa after their local producer ran out due to drought conditions. June Taylor Jams in Berkeley had to source new tomatoes after their supplier, Dirty Girl Produce, an organic farm near Santa Cruz, ran out of this year's limited yield.

"I worry that extreme weather, like California's drought, may become the new normal," Mulvaney writes. "Our agricultural partners face the greatest risks. Many businesses will experience climate change through limited supply and poor supply-chain quality."

Other restaurants face the more practical problem of staying open without water. In Willits, California, businesses are being asked to cut their water use by 35 percent, NPR's Here and Now reports. One local restaurant owner says the only way she can fulfill the water statute is to close for seven out of 20 days.

Well won't it eventually rain and all this will be solved?

Maybe, but probably not. State climatologist Mike Anderson estimates that California would need around 150 percent of normal precipitation to recover. Even El Niño may not deliver the kind rainfall California needs.

Is this because of climate change?

Meh... some say yes, others say no. Three papers recently released in the extreme-weather edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society were unsettled on the role of greenhouses gasses in this severe-weather trend. Others, like a study out of Stanford University, are more certain of climate change's role, stating: "The atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought in California are very likely linked to human-caused climate change."

What is the government doing?

In January 2014, California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, "calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible." On September 17th, the governor signed bills to limit the groundwater farmers can pump.

What can we do?

Try to be more sustainable. Water is something many of us take for granted, but some restaurants are beginning to shift their policies to conserve as much from nature as possible. One of the leaders of this movement is Darden Restaurants, owners of The Olive Garden, which has expanded their water-saving irrigation pilot program from two restaurants to 50 additional restaurants in Florida and California. The program uses drip irrigation systems that monitor temperature, humidity, rainfall and wind to determine the most efficient amount of water needed.

In general, restaurants and individuals should do what they can to recycle their water, invest in water storage, and purchase goods that require low amounts of water to produce and transport.

Originally published at Plate Online.
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