California's drought could mean bad news at the grocery store

The record drought in California is not only likely to decrease the state's agricultural yield and affect food prices, it could also wreak severe economic consequences for rural communities. To discuss the impact on farming and for consumers, Jeffrey Brown talks to Karen Ross of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now from California is the state's secretary of food and agriculture, Karen Ross.

Thanks for joining us.

So, how bad, first, generally, is the situation from where you sit?

KAREN ROSS, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture: Well, it is very serious.

And we know that the statistics are telling us that it is at least as serious as 1977, which at that time was the most severe drought on record. As of today, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 62 percent of California is under extreme drought conditions.

 JEFFREY BROWN: So give us a sense more specifically. In your area, in agriculture, what kind of impact are you seeing?

KAREN ROSS: Well, we can't grow food and farm crops without water. And about 65 percent of our cropland is irrigated. So it is very serious.

It is not just isolated to one part of the state. As I said earlier, we have a number of our counties that are under extreme drought conditions. And what it means is that we are already seeing farmers choose to fallow land that normally this time of the year they would be preparing for a springtime crop or a summer crop.

Every drop that they do have will be diverted to their permanent crops. That is tree nuts, which we are a significant supplier of nuts to the world. Over 50 percent of the fresh produce comes from our fields and orchards. So it is a very serious problem. And we are all in this together. It could be very long-lasting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you tell at this point the impact on consumers both now or potentially, and I mean in California and beyond?

KAREN ROSS: Well, because so much of our product is in high demand here and around the world, we do have to anticipate that. And at this point, it's too early to be able to quantify it in a way that would translate immediately to the grocery store.

One of the things we do have to remember is that even though these surface water allocations have been dramatically reduced and could actually be zero, it will also have an impact on groundwater availability and how that is used to keep the crops going that normally would have as much water as they need.

So it's a combination of understanding where there is surface water available and what can be done in the system. The governor referred to it this morning of how can we accelerate and streamline water transfers. At the same time, we are also having to provide notice to all of the water rights holders in this state that their access to water could be curtailed. And we're already seeing severe groundwater depletions in the state.

So it's going to take a lot of resources and a lot of good thinking to get ourselves through this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that goes to part of what I was wondering, because I know that California -- now, you can explain this. California has a very complex and sophisticated water system, from the Sierras down to the -- down to the reservoirs, down to farms and cities.

But how is -- easy is it to move water from one place to where perhaps it's more needed?

KAREN ROSS: Well, our biggest challenge right now is that there is so little surplus water in the system to move around. And that's something we have to keep in mind, is that this is about weather and climate and the fact that our reservoirs are at record lows.

And so there is little water or flexibility to move it around. But there are certain steps that we can take between the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board on some of the temporary changes that they can make now, hoping that we will still get a couple of those significant storms that will save us this year.

But we're trying to do all we can now to save flexibility in this system for deliveries later this year. So where they can make some adjustments, the proclamation that the governor issued last week will allow that to happen, but the most important thing here is that every Californian can help with conservation.

Farmlands being fallowed -- we already have cities that have put in voluntary and some are getting ready to do mandatory conservation measures. Every Californian can also make a contribution to saving water so that we have water in the system to move to places that don't have it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned the governor's declaration of a state of emergency.


JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of impact can that have for farmers and others?

KAREN ROSS: Well, it is limited, but it does help raise the visibility of the issue, so that first and foremost all Californians are aware of the role that they can play with conservation.

It also provides us an opportunity to work with our federal partners to see what kind of flexibility is within the federal system. It also highlights the importance of being able to pass a farm bill, because some of the programs that are normally available to farmers currently have not been reauthorized. So we desperately do need to have the farm bill passed.

Secretary Vilsack at the United States Department of Agriculture has already declared a secretarial disaster, so that the programs that are in place without the farm bill can kick in. Some of that deals with water conservation measures, some emergency loan programs that are available at low cost.

But we're also looking at, as a state task force, taking a look at food assistance that we know will be needed for many of the farmworkers that will go without seasonal employment this year, rental assistance, utility assistance. This has a severe impact on some of our rural communities in the Central Valley.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly, if you could, in 30 seconds, the governor said that you can't really tell what this is caused by, how much of it is climate change.

But are people in fact worried or thinking in terms of a new reality there now going forward?

KAREN ROSS: Well, it does call into question what is the new normal, and climate change is something that many people talk about.

And, really and truly, droughts come and go, but the severity of this one and what it means for us will certainly raise the topic of climate change in the conversation.

 JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Karen Ross is the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Thanks so much.

KAREN ROSS: Bye-bye.