California's Drought Isn't Making Food Cost More. Here's Why : The Salt California produces most of America's vegetables and nuts. Yet there's little sign the drought there is creating food shortages in the U.S., because farmers are rationing water and draining aquifers.
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California's Drought Isn't Making Food Cost More. Here's Why

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California's Drought Isn't Making Food Cost More. Here's Why

California's Drought Isn't Making Food Cost More. Here's Why

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The entire state of California is in a drought, one of the most severe on record. And since California grows a big share of the country's vegetables and nuts, You might think that we'd be feeling the effects across the U.S. But so far the drought has not created shortages, nor is it driving up food prices. NPR's Dan Charles explains why.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Ninety-five percent of America's broccoli grows in California, 81 percent of its carrots, 99 percent of the country's artichokes, almonds and walnuts. Even in a normal year, it doesn't rain much where those crops grow, so farmers typically get water from far away, mostly from melting snowpack in the mountains delivered through aqueducts and canals.

Southwest of Fresno, those systems are run by the Westlands Water District.

SARAH WOOLF: We have a Westlands outlet right here.

CHARLES: Sarah Woolf is showing me around her family's land. She's pointing to a big blue pipe coming right out of the ground. It's her farm's lifeline.

WOOLF: All Westlands growers get their water out of stem pipes just like this. All of Westlands delivery system is underground, in pipelines, and a blue outlet pops up like this on everyone's field.

CHARLES: But this year no water is coming out of that pipe. Because of the drought, the entire Westlands Irrigation District, 600,000 acres of farmland, has been cut off. One result is a field of bare dirt.

WOOLF: Actually it had onions in it last year, and we're not farming it at all because we don't have enough water supply.

CHARLES: But that's not the whole story here. About half the fields in this area still are green. I see alfalfa, garlic plants, leafy almond orchards. They exist because many farmers here have a backup supply of water. They're pumping it out of underground aquifers.

And this is the first and biggest reason why you're still getting plenty of vegetables and nuts from California this year. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, farmers are pumping so much extra water from wells it will make up for about 75 percent of the cutbacks in water from dams and reservoirs.

But it comes at a cost. There's a limited supply of that groundwater. Sarah Woolf tells me just this morning she heard about problems at one of their wells.

WOOLF: We have to actually drill down and drop the well deeper, which is a very bad sign.

CHARLES: So the water table is dropping?

WOOLF: Yes, so we have to go down deeper to get it.

CHARLES: The second reason why the drought is not driving up food prices is some places in California have not actually been hit very hard. Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says take this example: The Salinas Valley, a place that people call America's salad bowl.

DANIEL SUMNER: In June, 90 percent of the lettuce in the United States is grown in the Salinas Valley. No effect of the drought yet in the Salinas Valley.

CHARLES: Those farms don't get water from the reservoirs. They've always been able to rely on wells, and nothing's changed this year. And finally, reason number three: California's farmers are doing a kind of triage on their crops. Allen Peterson, for example, he farms land near the town of Turlock. He grows mostly almonds, or almonds as many people here call them.

ALLEN PETERSON: Here we're approaching a canal system that we have delivering water to us and other farms.

CHARLES: The canal runs right past his orchards. It's a concrete channel 18 feet wide and six feet deep, full of water. Peterson is getting less water this year, about half the normal allotment. It's enough to grow a crop but not on every acre.

PETERSON: I've kept water on our almond crop, which is a higher-value crop. I've left fallow some corn ground to make sure I have enough water for my almonds.

CHARLES: That means he won't have corn to sell to his dairy farmer neighbors. Dairy farmers are suffering from the drought. They're bringing in feed from far away, and it's expensive. Farmers in California also are growing less rice.

But the effect of all that on consumers will be muted. Those foods come from lots of places, not just California. Daniel Sumner, the agricultural economist, says this is economics in action.

SUMNER: People move the water to its highest-value use. People pay attention to markets. If you can't get something from California, there are a few other suppliers where it's available. That's what markets do. They're good at it.

CHARLES: But if the drought continues into next year, some of these coping strategies eventually may not work so well. For instance there's increasing talk in California that farmers really should not be allowed to pump unlimited amounts of water from underground aquifers. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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