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California drought

Mio Soric, California / reFebruary 18, 2014

Hundreds of farmers in California face bankruptcy due to a lack of rainfall in recent months and stiff foreign competition. Large swaths of their farmland can't be used, and farm owners are criticizing the government.

A dried out lake in California (Foto: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Image: CC/wanderbored

Ryan Jacobsen and his family have been farming their land for four generations. His ancestors were Volga Germans from the territories surrounding Russia's Volga River. More than 100 years ago, they settled in central California, in the town of Fresno, about a two-hour's drive southeast of San Francisco. They cultivated wine and grew fruits and vegetables. Jacobsen likes to talk about the past with his grandfather, who is now over 90 years old, but now, the dry spell is the only issue.

"The drought here in San Joachin Valley is absolutely the worst we've ever seen. And what we're looking at as far as this year, we're looking at hundreds of thousands of acres being fallowed, tens of thousands of jobs being lost, and billions of dollars of economic activity not coming to this community," said the 34-year-old farmer.

It has hardly rained in the last three years. The tall, lanky Ryan stands in front of one of his fields and shows how economically he and the farmers in the neighborhood use the precious water. Long hoses, which lay a few inches beneath the surface, lead the water straight to the roots of the turnips. The water is transported many miles through canals to the fields and originates from nearby reservoirs.

"Nothing evaporates here," Jacobsen said.

Big water bills

One local water supply is the San Luis Reservoir. During the winter, it's generally filled up to the rim due to rainy weather in the cold season. In the spring, melt water from the mountains also fills the reservoir. But because of the lack of rain, the reservoir is only 40 percent filled. What's usually a green shore now resembles a brown lunar landscape. And it becomes wider and wider the more the water level drops.

The water from this reservoir is expensive. Farmers pay around $100 (73 euros) to irrigate a small field for a few hours, which means the cost of cultivating crops increases. But higher costs for the products can't always be passed on to consumers. The competition in the agriculture business is stiff. Strawberries, grapes and nuts from Latin American countries are increasingly entering the US market.

A tractor on a dried out field (Foto: Stefan Czimmek/DW)
Many farmers will face bankruptcy, if the drought continuesImage: DW/S. Czimmek

"Eventually, you reach a point where farming isn't worth it," said Fotis Bilios. He works on a big farm that employs 300 workers and is located half an hour's drive from Fresno. Thousands of seasonal workers also help at the site to generate an annual turnover of $80 million. But the profits are plummeting now that rain is scarce.

"A quarter of the 7,100 hectares of farmland lies fallow," said the 43-year-old during a tour through the area. The "Stamoulis" farm is one of the most modern farms in California, and Bilios expects it will survive the drought. "It's a lot more difficult for many small farms," he added.

Facing financial ruin

Hundreds of farmers face bankruptcy, says Juliet Christian-Smith from the Union of Concerned Scientists environmental organization in San Francisco. It might rain occasionally in the coming months, but it won't be enough to fill the reservoirs. That's a bleak prospect for agriculture - the most important economic sector in California, with 50 billion dollars in revenues per year.

When asked why there's no more rain, Christian-Smith says she believes it is caused by climate change.

"There's very high consensus around increasing droughts in the future related to global climate change, because not only are we having earlier snow melts and less snow pack, which is one of our largest water reservoirs in the western US, but we're also having hotter temperatures, which means that outdoor plants require more water to survive," she said.

California's Governor Jerry Brown has made efforts at raising awareness of climate change issues and recently declared a state of drought emergency. Authorities estimate that around 200,000 hectares of land can't be used due to current conditions. The resulting damages amount to five billion dollars, the government estimates.

Another reason for the drought is that California's population has doubled to 38 million people over the last four decades. More people mean more water is consumed.

Fotis Bilios - like most of the farmers - does not speak highly of the government. He believes that too much water is being pumped into the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. "What's more important - that the people are able to take long showers or that they have food?"

The fight for water has only just begun.