California’s current drought is its worst drought in 1,200 years. Since 2012, dramatic decreases in both rainfall and snowfall have left the state’s reservoirs at a fraction of their normal capacity. And although utilities managers have artificially widened these reservoirs and drilled deeper into the water table to access backup sources of water, such measures aren’t exactly sustainable.
What Caused the Water Shortage?
This water shortage has dramatic implications for California’s agricultural industry. The Golden State (and its Central Valley in particular) is not only a major agricultural supplier for the United States — it’s the fifth-largest food producer in the world. The bulk of our almonds, lemons, artichokes, and tomatoes come from California, and all have been hit with state-mandated water conservation measures, driving down crop yields and driving up costs. Another extremely popular local crop is cannabis, with thousands of acres grown in Humboldt County alone. Now, with the state’s residents having voted to legalize recreational use and sale, cannabis will become even more integral to California’s economy. So how will California’s water shortage affect its cannabis production?
The drought is due in large part to an area of high atmospheric pressure that was situated in the Pacific Northwest and nicknamed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” The ridge hung over the region for a good part of 2014 and diverted storm patterns away from the West Coast, pushing them up towards Canada and then towards the Eastern Seaboard. This caused Washington, Oregon, and California to miss the winter snowfall that ordinarily would have built up their mountain snowpacks and then melted into Southern California’s lowlands.
The East Coast was hit with an unusual number of winter storms, leaving the West Coast dangerously dry
Although some rainfall in October 2016 has relieved drought in northern parts of the state, much of California remains parched. On top of that, a weather phenomenon dubbed La Nina could cause a warm and dry winter, prolonging drought conditions.
California’s Conservation Plan
California has resorted to increasingly drastic measures to make sure its scant water keeps flowing. Beginning in 2015, Governor Jerry Brown instituted mandatory conservation policies to cut water consumption by 25%, restricting communities from irrigating non-essential grass on football fields, front lawns, and roadway medians; Brown later extended the restrictions to household appliances, mandating low-flow shower heads and hose nozzles. The state’s agriculture industry has also been hit with restrictions. In June 2015, the California Water Resources Control Board required farmers to cut water usage by 25% — resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland lying fallow and a 17% decrease in agricultural sales.
The state has had significantly more trouble enforcing these water austerity measures for cannabis farmers.
California currently allows permits for farmers who can document that their product is sold to medical consumers
These legal farmers must follow the Control Board’s best practices, which include rainwater collection systems and drip (rather than flood) irrigation.
But black market cannabis crops still exist, and they can consume a lot of water — depending on its size, a cannabis plant can consume anywhere between one to ten gallons of water per day. Illicit growers have no reason to abide by the stated usage limits, and can turn to illegal measures like drilling or diverting streams to access as much water as they need. Some conservation officials have said that by using water irresponsibly, illegal cannabis farmers are responsible for threatening California’s endangered salmon.
California’s legalization of recreational weed this month might be a double-edged sword for its
water problem. In theory, legalization will force illegal farmers to go legit in order to keep up with the newly legal competition, compelling them to cooperate with state regulatory boards. This would mean less illegally-diverted water.
On the other hand, California will likely be hit with a population influx comparable to Colorado’s “green rush,” with cannabis entrepreneurs seeking out state permits and arable land in droves. The state’s water reserves are struggling to handle their existing agricultural burden, but with $400 billion in debt, It may be tough for Jerry Brown’s administration to turn its back on hundreds of millions in cannabis revenue each month — especially considering that neighboring Nevada, which also legalized recreational cannabis on November 8th, stands to profit from any potential business that California can’t accommodate.
Traditional farmers have had some success adapting to California’s drought by dry-farming their crops. The method involves storing occasional rainfall and encouraging deep root development to tap into groundwater sources — tomatoes, apples, and entire vineyards of grapes can flourish with dry farming, yielding products that are less-waterlogged and have a more organic, flavorful taste. And although cannabis could conceivably be dry-grown, processed bud that appears dark and desiccated doesn’t usually sell as well in a market that’s become accustomed to picture-perfect, hydroponically grown weed.
The Future of California’s Water
Besides a shortage of reliable water for irrigation, growers in California also need to be wary of the increased risk of wildfires. The state’s severely dry vegetation has made for easy kindling in a summer of record temperatures, allowing blazes to burn unchecked through large regions — as of September 2016, there were at least six major fires burning throughout California, altogether damaging about 184,000 acres of land. Cultivator Mike Ray lost an entire crop due to the Butte fire of 2015 — his devastation is a harrowing warning for potential farmers whose expensive operations, whether indoors or outdoors, are at risk of going up in the wrong kind of smoke.
California’s massive wine industry has also been hit by the effects of the drought. Areas like Paso Robles on the central coast have seen steep declines in production.
Even vineyards that have relied on dry farming or on reserves on water for drip irrigation are seeing a difference
although less consistent water supply means a more flavorful grape, the actual quantity of grapes produced is smaller; although they may be able to charge more for superior wines, vineyards are facing smaller and smaller profit margins due to their deceased output.
Winter is California’s traditional “wet season” and the winter of 2016-2017 promises to be a crucial one. If the usual patterns of rainfall and snowmelt don’t return to the West Coast this year, California’s cannabis industry won’t be the only institution whose future hangs in the balance.