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Scientists: Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Threatens U.S. Food Supply

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America’s food supply is under threat because California is experiencing its worst drought in more than 1,000 years, scientists say.

Scientists who study tree rings say California is facing its worst drought in 1,200 years, The San Jose Mercury News reported. They can determine when droughts occurred because trees grow faster in wet years and slower in dry spells.

The drought has had a dramatic impact on the state’s aquifers.

The aquifers supply water to key agricultural areas like California’s Central Valley, the High Plains and similar regions in India and China, and are being pumped out faster than they can be replenished by nature, hydrologist James Famiglietti warned in a paper published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. Famiglietti works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he uses satellites to monitor groundwater supplies.

“The American West is running out of water,” Famiglietti wrote in an article for National Geographic. “The undeniable consequence is that groundwater supplies in our major western aquifers — the Central Valley, the southern Ogallala and now those that underlie the Colorado River Basin – are disappearing. We simply pump out more water than is being naturally replenished, and as a result, groundwater levels are falling rapidly.”

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The situation is made worse by California’s mega drought, which is causing aquifers to be pumped out faster, Famiglietti said. Wells in at least one community, East Porterville in the Central Valley of California – a key agricultural region – started running dry in August.

Crop Production Falls in California

Agricultural production in California is already falling because of the drought and increased costs, Bloomberg reported. Wheat acreage in the Golden State fell by 53 percent in 2013, and corn acreage fell by 34 percent. Cotton planting has fallen 60 percent the past decade.

“If this persists in the next year, the devastation we will see here and across the state will be biblical,” Fresno farmer Shawn Stevenson said of the drought. Stevenson had to bulldoze 400 acres of orange trees because the US Bureau of Reclamation cut off the water supply to his farm. Stevenson will only be able to harvest about 25 percent of his crops this year because of the drought.

The Bureau, which supplies water to one-third of California’s farmers, has started shutting off the irrigation water supply to many areas, Bloomberg reported.

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“California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 km3 of total water per year since 2011 — more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually — over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley,” Famiglietti noted.

He estimated that around 70 percent of California’s water supply comes from groundwater.

Many farmers are replacing high water-use crops with plants that use less such as almonds. Others are turning to more advanced irrigation methods and using wastewater.

Food prices are already rising because of the drought, and dairy product prices hit an all-time high this year.

The produce grown in the Golden State includes:

  • 99 percent of its walnuts
  • 99 percent of its almonds
  • 99 percent of its walnuts
  • 98 percent of its pistachios
  • 95 percent of America’s broccoli crop
  • 92 percent  of strawberries
  • 91 percent of its grapes
  • 90 percent of its tomatoes
  • 74 percent of its lettuce

Worldwide Food Shortage Possible

Drought and the ground water crisis could lead to a worldwide food shortage, Famiglietti believes.

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He studied aquifers in China, Australia, Africa, South America, North America, the Middle East and India and found that they are all decreasing fast.

“Nearly all of these underlie the word’s great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity,” Famiglietti wrote of the aquifers he studied. He also thinks the problem will get worse in the near future.

“Moreover, because the natural human response to drought is to pump more groundwater, continued groundwater depletion will very likely accelerate mid-latitude drying, a problem that will be exacerbated by significant population growth in the same regions,” Famiglietti said.

He predicted: “Further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others.”

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