The County Voice

Ripple Effects — Without the Pond

Throw a pebble into a pond and watch the ripples—well, if only we had a pond. The rain that’s fallen on California in the past several days is certainly a welcome change, but it is not enough to reverse the ripple effects of the drought. Average rainfall and reservoir levels are still well below 50 percent of normal up and down the state. The drought has been so severe it may have already caused damage that can’t be undone no matter how much rain we get now.

I am participating in a briefing this week about the drought in Sacramento. It’s sponsored by several organizations, including CSAC, the Association of California Water Agencies and the State Department of Water Resources. Hundreds of people will either be there in person or listen in over a webcast. My panel is about the ripple effects of the drought—and this is what I’m going to tell them.

When December and January are as dry as they have been this season, range grass doesn’t grow. Ranchers who rely on that to feed their herds have to make tough decisions. Buying feed to replace grass is usually a losing proposition and the only alternative is to sell off some of the herd. It’s impossible to know the full extent of the impact right now—but every day I hear anecdotes from ranchers who are selling off cattle and sheep because they can’t afford to buy the feed they need, and about farmers who are saving what little water they do have to keep fruit and nut trees alive through the summer.

As a walnut grower myself, I can tell you that most orchard crops take 3-7 years after planting to mature and begin producing income. No one wants to lose that kind of investment—even if it means not planting some annual crops and saving what little water is available for orchards.

The California Farm Bureau Federation estimates that hundreds of thousands of acres will go unplanted this year. That means fewer jobs for farm workers and higher food costs.  For counties—especially those in the central valley, inevitably this means we’ll have more people relying on county health care, food programs,  and other assistance.  Moreover, some counties could lose revenue to the drought—because county revenue is tied to land value and ag-land values are tied to water rights. Without water, property values and county revenue can tumble.

Counties also play a role in fighting wildfires and unfortunately, drought and wildfires often go together. So for counties, especially those with a lot of ag land and open space, the drought means both an increase in costs, and the potential for reduced revenue. A double whammy we could definitely do without. The best we can do is to prepare for the ripple effects we know are coming.

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