Case Study: California

California is currently experiencing a severe drought, the worst in the state’s history. One of the driest years on record, 2013 was marked by having the driest winter in more than five hundred years. The lack of ice and snow buldup poses its own problems for the Golden State because of the dependence on ice and snow for water storage until spring, when the subsequent runoff refills water tables throughout the state. In 1977, the population was 20 million and has nearly doubled since then, coming to an estimated 38 million in 2014. Along with population increases in the region, California has also experienced a boom in agricultural production over the past three decades, with forty-five billion dollars recorded in agricultural revenues in 2013.

These factors are just a few reasons why the current drought is a major economical and environmental concern for not only California, but also the entire United States.

California drought monitor

History of Drought in the Region

California is no stranger to dry spells. The last time the region experienced a drought similar to the current one was in the late 1970s. At the time, then-Governor Jerry Brown led a water conservation campaign that made national headlines with slogans like “shower with a friend”. Emergency water pipelines were run to major cities in hopes of avoiding a catastrophe. Due to increases in the region’s population and production, an emergency pipeline will not solve the much larger issue the state faces currently.


For decades Californian farmers have relied on an aqueduct system that directs water from rainfall falling on the western slopes of the state’s coastal mountain ranges. For the past three years, however, meteorologists have observed a high pressure ridge that have prevented rainfall from reaching the western slopes.

This has led farmers to take drastic measures to try and preserve any portion of their crops and profit. Although many have found temporary success with digging wells, tapping aquifers, and other alternative sources, the majority has begun to realize there just is not enough water to keep their crops alive.

In the past decade, California’s agricultural focus shifted from annual crops to nut production, which the state has profited from up until the drought. It is estimated that California’s nut production brings the region seven billion dollars in sales annually. The state is also responsible for eighty-two percent of the world’s almonds, which are one of the most valued crops in the United States.


In 2013, California battled some of the strongest wildfires in recent history. Every year the National Interagency Fire Center releases predictions that designate areas of “significant fire potential”, with the predications for 2014 encompassing an even larger area throughout the region.

mountain wildfire in California seen from the residential valleyNational Geographic

Food Shortages and Prices

With all of the cutbacks that are necessary with less water and fertile soil, California’s typical production of roughly fifty percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables has been steadily falling, leading to a rise in food prices. Not only are farmers letting their fields go fallow (uncultivated so as to restore nutrients) because of a lack of water, cattle ranchers are also trimming their herds to combat rising costs for feed. Although there is a delay in these realities reaching consumer wallets, the rest of the country has already seen price increases for beef, cheese, milk, and other dairy products.



Unfortunately for Americans, the negative effects of the drought will not be limited to food shortages. More wildfires mean more flora and fauna are destroyed, endangering many of the regions native species. As more fields are left fallow, soil erosion becomes a major issue for farmers. Soil damage and a decrease in the fertility of the land will have a lasting impact on the region for decades to come.


Because of food production shortages due to the drought, the US will have to begin importing more food in an effort to avoid a major price spike. This also means that the US will not be exporting as much food as in previous year, which will have a negative impact on the economy. California produces more than eleven percent of all of the food produced in the United States, which includes the fifty percent of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables as previously stated. As the country’s largest agriculture producer, California accounts for twelve percent of all US farm exports. The region’s current situation makes the US farm market particularly vulnerable.


Virginia Comer

Last Updated: May 23, 2018