The Van Trump Report

Will Shrinking Water Supplies Keep Pushing Vegetable Prices Higher?

When we talk about drought in agriculture, much of the focus is on livestock and row crops. But if you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you have no doubt noticed the insanely high prices of vegetables, which surged +38% in November alone and are up over +80% versus last year. The skyrocketing costs are directly tied to the ongoing battle for water in the West. Remember, California and Arizona, are the number 1 and number 2 suppliers of fresh vegetables in the US, respectively.

Dan Bunk, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water manager, calls the situation of the Colorado River system “dire”. He explains, “Flows during the past 23-year period … are the lowest in the past 120 years and (among) the lowest in more than 1,200 years.” Bunk said the two largest reservoirs on the river — Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona state line and Lake Powell formed by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah line — continue to be a major concern. Lake Mead was at 100% capacity in mid-1999. Today it is 28% full. Lake Powell, last full in June 1980, is at 25%. Despite historic snows and record rains in California and average snowfall in the Rockies so far this winter, the Colorado River reservoirs remain at critically low levels and under emergency water-flow management. Bunk says, “The reservoirs were full in the year 2000. These are the two biggest reservoirs in the United States filled to the brim just 23 years ago,” he said. “And they’ve been dropping steadily for the last two decades. And last summer, they both hit their lowest levels ever.”

Bureau officials use the image of pouring tea from one cup to another to describe how water from Rocky Mountain snowmelt is captured in Lake Powell, then released downriver through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead. About 70% is allocated for irrigation, sustaining a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry that supplies 90% of US winter vegetables.  

In a report from UC Merced and UC Davis examining the drought’s economic effects in California, researchers estimated that California’s irrigated farmland shrank by -752,000 acres, or nearly -10%, in 2022 compared with 2019 — the year prior to the drought. That was up from an estimated 563,000 acres of fallowed farmland last year. Even more farmland in California’s key agricultural districts is expected to be permanently taken out of production in the years ahead as growers face more strict water pumping restrictions under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Farmers in Arizona, which provide over 90% of the country’s leafy greens from November through March each year, have also witnessed dramatic cuts to their water supplies from the Colorado River, with more to come. Arizona farmers are now preparing for a -21% cut to its Colorado River water allotment starting next month but could face even steeper cuts.  

The Southwest’s Lake Powell and Lake Mead, designed to water the West during drought, are still at critical levels despite a “good” snow season, water managers told FOX Weather. They add the government is demanding further cuts from the states in the Colorado River Basin as current usage is not sustainable.

While California’s reservoirs may have received a water supply bonanza of snowfall this winter, Lakes Powell and Mead have little to celebrate about. The multiple atmospheric river storms that dumped twice the amount of winter snow in some areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains have only resulted in near average snowpack for the Rockies, which supply water to the Colorado River. And it is not enough, water managers say.

The US Bureau of Reclamation gave the Colorado River basin states an ultimatum back in June to figure out how to cut an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023, or approximately 25% of what they currently use. If the states don’t reach a compromise on how to do this, the bureau warned it will enforce its own restrictions. The deadline has since passed and states have still not managed to come to an agreement.

With water supplies set to shrink further, the cost for irrigation is only expected to climb, which will no doubt be passed on to consumers. Additionally, many produce farmers are expected to either switch crops or fallow even more land, resulting in even shorter supplies and increased grocery store prices.

Some argue that indoor farming may be the best way to secure the country’s produce supplies. Most of these large-scale operations have the additional benefit of being closer to population centers, which in turn can reduce shipping costs and ensure local supplies more efficiently, especially during winter. Indoor farming raised over $1 billion in 2021, exceeding the combined funding generated in 2018 and 2019, and the industry is expected to grow to $9.7 billion worldwide by 2026.

Critics, however, argue that indoor farming is impractical from an energy standpoint. The 2021 Global CEA Census Report found that greenhouse growers used 15-20 times as much energy, on average, and vertical farms used a little over 100 times as much energy as outdoor lettuce growers in Arizona. The same report noted that smaller facilities had significantly higher energy use relative to larger counterparts. Less skeptical industry watchers say that while indoor farming has made tremendous strides in recent years, the industry is still in its infancy. Meaning that vertical farming and hydroponics may be part of the solution but it will likely be decades before they are practical. (Sources: USDA, CoBank, The Guardian, Bloomberg)

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