Jobs and Irrigation during Drought in California

Jobs and Irrigation during Drought in California

Farmworkers harvesting cauliflower in Monterey County. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources

by Josué Medellín-Azuara and Jay Lund

During droughts organizations and stakeholders look for ways of getting the most from every water drop. This is not an exception in California where roughly 40 percent of all water use (on average) is agricultural, 10 percent to cities and the rest is uncaptured or environmental uses (mostly on the North Coast). Cities particularly in southern California have adhered to aggressive water conservation measures, and economically worthwhile irrigation efficiency improvements have already been adopted by thriving agriculture in the state. Yet the notion that applied water in agriculture is often wasteful is common in media drought coverage.

As it turns out, farmers strategically apply water to maintain higher net economic returns.  Farmers irrigate to supply crop evapotranspiration needs, plus a bit more to ensure each plant across a field is well watered and reduce management costs.  In some areas, salts need to be flushed from soils to avoid crop yield losses.  In most areas, most of the additional irrigation beyond immediate crop needs becomes groundwater recharge, which helps prepare for future droughts. Drier soils and higher temperatures during droughts may also demand higher applied water to compensate for additional temperature losses. 

With all these nuances in California agricultural water use, the regional economic benefits of growing crops are sometimes neglected. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, agricultural crop production and processing are nearly a fourth of gross revenues and a sixth of the region’s employment. Rural areas across the state depend disproportionately on irrigated agriculture.

The table below presents estimated irrigated crop area by major crop group, applied water and employment (Medellin-Azuara et al. 2015). While data in the table merits an update (keep posted for a follow-up blog), the story remains unchanged. Fruits, nuts and vegetables support most agricultural gross revenues, employment and income in California’s agriculture when combining hired and contract labor.

Figure 1 puts the story into perspective, if major crop categories are arranged in acreage from the highest value the lowest gross value and employment (from Table 1), nearly 85 percent of all employment and revenues are from growing fruits, nuts and vegetables, which are about half of California’s irrigated acreage.

Figure 1. Cumulative value and employment in California’s major crop groups (Lund et al. 2018). Prepared by Josue Medellin-Azuara with the assistance of Nadya Alexander, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Contact: jmedellin@ucmerced.edu

Droughts bring new challenges for supplying water even to highly profitable crops, including permanent crops. Adaptation and profits usually point towards reducing irrigation of field, grain and other less profitable agricultural commodities. One limiting factor is the feed crop needs of California’s highly ranked dairy’s sector. Silage corn is the preferred wet roughage for dairies to support high milk yield.

Some old and new insights are worthwhile mentioning:

  • The top 5 crop groups in revenue per unit of water use are grown on about 25 percent of California’s irrigated cropland and account for 16.4 percent of all the net water use. Those crops are responsible for two-thirds of all crop-related employment.
  • Grains, livestock forage and other field crops rank lower in revenue and jobs per drop because their farming is highly mechanized, requiring much less labor. These crop groups nonetheless are critical to the livestock industry. California’s dairy production is the largest in the country.
  • Vegetables, horticulture, fruits and nuts account for more than 90 percent of employment directly related to crop production.
  • Farm contractors, who provide bulk labor for growers, supply about half the labor force for most crop groups.
  • California agriculture accounts for more than 400,000 full-time jobs (or their equivalent, with nearly 200,000 in crop and animal production, another 200,000 in agricultural support services (contract labor).

California’s dynamic and highly adaptive agricultural sector is likely to continue increasing value and employment per unit of water use. Over the past 30 years there has been an intensification in value that retains commodities with the highest gross value and employment. Such value intensification along with a globalized economy prevent catastrophic economic (including employment) losses from drought in agriculture to occur, particularly when groundwater is available to maintain permanent crops.

Despite this robustness of agriculture overall, some hurdles merit additional planning and forethought. First, additional reductions in applied water might sound attractive, but should be put in the context of the farm (or basin) water balance and the need to recharge groundwater for droughts.  Second, within the first few years of implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, adhering to drought year provisions on water use and pumping will be a challenge, and some irrigated area reductions might occur.

Increased water pumping during drought will likely dampen higher overall agricultural economic losses once again.  Yet even if pumping adheres to drought year provisions in the groundwater sustainability plans, the effects on rural community wells from increased agricultural pumping nearby is a concern.

Growing water scarcity for agriculture is probably best managed using water markets and pricing so the industry and the state can make the most of limited supplies. Efforts to impose detailed arbitrary limits on crops and regions are unlikely to serve the economic and environmental interests of California, but rather further impoverish rural areas and distract from discussions needed for long-term progress.

Josué Medellín-Azuara, Jay Lund are respectively associate director and co-director at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Medellín-Azuara is an associate professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Merced. Lund is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis.

Further reading

California Department of Water Resources. 2015. “Irrigated crop acres and water use.” Last visited April 24, 2015

Martin P. and Taylor E. 2013. “Ripe with Change: Evolving Farm Labor Markets int he United States, Mexico and Central America.” Migration Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. Last visited April 24, 2015

Medellin-Azuara J. and Lund J.R. 2015. “Dollars and drops per California crop.” California WaterBlog. April, 14, 2015

Sumner D. 2015. “Food prices and the California drought.” California WaterBlog. April 22, 2015

Lund, J., Medellin-Azuara, J., Durand, J., & Stone, K. (2018). Lessons from California’s 2012–2016 drought. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 144(10), 4018067.

Medellin-Azura, J. Lund, J.R. and Howitt, R.E. Jobs per drop in the California Crops. California Water Blog, April 28, 2015.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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6 Responses to Jobs and Irrigation during Drought in California

  1. wlntfrmr says:

    Lack of water not only will affect what crops will be grown and employment, but also the make up of farm ownership. Water markets may cause efficient allocation of water from an economic perspective, but it may also hasten the transformation from traditional “family farms” to larger corporate farming. This because of economy of scale, the ability to deal with increasing regulations, capital investment in mechanization, and the capital to acquire water. This will change the rural fabric of California, employment patterns, local business which depend on local agriculture.

    Although SEGMA has been lauded as a tool for managing California’s water, working toward sustainability, it has yet to be fully implemented. Many questions remain unanswered with respect to what land cannot be irrigated, who will be required to fallow their land and what restrictions, if any, will be placed on the development of previously unirrigated dryland to permanent crops.

    As with all good policy intentions, there are social and community consequences that to often are neglected when allocation of a scarce resource is determined by the market place.

  2. bruceherbold says:

    Nice post. I’d love to see a comparison for the Sac vs SJ valleys — maybe with a handle on how the local economic effects differ.

    I’d also love to see the typos in Figure 1 corrected.

  3. anniefix says:

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  4. cleo says:

    Quick question: has anyone done an analysis on harvest efficiency? E.g. it’s rumored (and please correct me if this is wrong) that 50% of almonds are wasted because the machines (which generate the highest net profit) can only harvest 50%. Higher harvest yields drive up costs because they require employing more people. Could there be an incentive to harvest more / waste less and *also* create a higher benefit to California (e.g. more jobs, money in more pockets)?

  5. Global markets are extremely efficient at resource extraction. California has been exporting far more crops based on unsustainable groundwater use than any other state or world region. See Groundwater Depletion Embedded in Domestic Transfers and International Exports of the United States, Sajani Gumidyala, Paul J. Ruess, Megan Konar, Landon Marston, Carole Dalin, and Yoshihide Wada, AGU, Jan 2020. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/2019WR024986.

    Until this comes more into balance, we will see continuing crises during droughts with domestic wells going dry.

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