What a Water Shortage Is Doing to Some of America’s Best Farmland

by Msnbctv news staff

Strawberries in the middle of winter. Almond milk in your latte. Cans of tomato paste that end up on your pizza.

So much of what we eat is produced on the vast farms of California’s Central Valley.

For years, that’s been possible because of a maze of canals and tunnels that bring water from the rivers in the northern part of the state and because farmers have been able to pull water from under the ground.

This year, the rich, fertile Central Valley confronts both an exceptional drought and the consequences of years of pumping far too much water out of its aquifers.

I wanted to understand how farmers are coping and what that means for the future of food production in the country’s richest agricultural belt.

So I drove up and down the valley. I met almond growers and melon farmers, spoke with managers of irrigation districts and experts who study the economics of water in the state.

I saw a glimpse of California’s drier future. Fields are left unplanted. Farmers who have some water in the relatively water-abundant north are opting to sell much of it rather than irrigate their crops. In the more parched sections of the state, some are considering planting solar arrays rather than food crops. You can read my article here.

The numbers: By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is projected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. That’s more than a 10th of the area farmed.

Portland, Ore., is usually delightful in June, with relatively little rain and high temperatures that average in the mid-70s. On Monday afternoon, however, the temperature was 117 degrees, a record high.

That was just one temperature record that fell throughout Oregon, Washington and British Columbia as the region was hammered by a heat wave that began over the weekend. Lytton, a town in British Columbia, set an all-Canada record three days in a row, reaching 121 degrees on Tuesday.

Meteorologists said the extreme conditions were the result of a “heat dome,” an immense zone of high pressure air that stalled over the region and served as a lid, trapping heat and allowing it to accumulate.

In our article about the impact in Portland and other cities, we called the heat “weird.” That seems fitting when a thermometer reading is more than 40 degrees higher than average.

But there is nothing weird about why this heat wave occurred (and is still occurring in inland parts of the region). Scientists said they were confident that climate change played a role, as studies have shown that it has in other heat waves. When baseline temperatures are higher, as they are in a world that has warmed nearly 2 degrees since 1900, extreme heat will likely be even more extreme.

Related: The Pacific Northwest is shattering temperature records and heat-related deaths are spiking in Canada.

President Biden is on the defensive just days after striking a deal with Senate leaders for a $973 billion infrastructure package. That’s because the bill doesn’t go nearly as far as the administration had promised in fighting climate change.

The measure does provide funding to shift the electric grid toward more renewable energy. It also includes $15 billion for vehicle electrification, just a fraction of the $174 billion Mr. Biden had wanted, and $47 billion to help communities become more resilient to disasters and severe weather caused by a warming planet.

But the president had hoped to use a sweeping infrastructure package as a vehicle to enact national rules requiring power companies to gradually ratchet up the amount of electricity they generate from wind, solar and other sources until they’re no longer emitting carbon dioxide. That didn’t survive the negotiations.

Mr. Biden has vowed that Democrats will try to pass bigger green policies in a separate legislative process known as reconciliation. As my colleague Coral Davenport and I wrote, that goal faces some very high hurdles.

Related: Democratic cracks are beginning to show on the infrastructure bill.

As climate change worsens, Native Americans are being hit especially hard. From Alaska to Florida, tribal nations are particularly exposed to flooding, drought, hotter temperatures and rising seas — the newest threat in a history marked by centuries of distress and dislocation.

That disproportionate vulnerability to climate change is no accident. Many Native Americans were pushed onto marginal lands, first by white settlers and later by the United States government, leaving them more exposed to natural hazards. Later governments compounded that damage by allowing substandard housing and infrastructure in Native communities.

But as Kalen Goodluck and I wrote this week, the vulnerability of Native Americans also reflects current federal policy. Tribal nations are less likely than states to get various types of federal assistance in preparing for or recovering from disasters — a test for President Biden’s pledge to pursue climate and environmental justice.

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