California’s Drought Hits Wallets – and Health

AMA3-28-15It takes nearly five gallons of water to cultivate a single walnut – more than it takes to grow a head of lettuce. But in drought stricken California, the water it takes for those and other fruit and vegetable crops is in drastically short supply – and that has effects far beyond the borders of the Golden State.

The entire state of California is in the throes of a drought of epic scale, with conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” from North to South. Drought conditions have persisted for so long that even heavy rainfall does little to mitigate the problem.

California’s water shortage has many causes, some related to climate change and shifting weather patterns, others entirely due to human interventions. In a heavily populated state, residential consumption is part of the problem. According to new statistics reported by Mother Jones, Palm Springs residents account for a staggering 700 gallons of water per person per day.

In less affluent areas, consumpti0on is significantly less. Riversiders use around 300 gallons a day, and in working-class Long Beach residents use under 200 gallons a day. But although residents are warned to limit toilet flushes, restaurants are asked not to serve water unless a customer asks, and the “drought police” issue citations for watering lawns, the big consumers of the state’s finite water supplies are large corporations, industries and tourist attractions.

Fracking, mining, golf courses and Disneyland may be among the leading water consumers in the state. But a major part of California’s water goes to agriculture. The state is the little known “breadbasket“ of the United States, responsible for producing the bulk of the produce the rest of the country eats every day.

California produces 95 percent of all US broccoli, 92 percent of the country’s strawberries and 90 percent of its tomatoes. But while those crops are also grown elsewhere in the country, California leads the nation in the production of nuts. Accounting for 99 percent of all almonds and walnuts and 98 percent of pistachios, California dominates the US nut market.

And nuts take a lot of water. Drought conditions are threatening to create a shortage of almonds and push prices up for all nut sand nut products such as pistachio ice cream and almond milk. And while the drought’s impact on nut production may seem extreme, it’s just one example of the impact drought conditions in California will have on the rest of the country – and the world.

Economists expect California’s drought to push prices for most of the fruits ad vegetables America consumes every day to near record levels. That’s not counting the higher priced organic versions of these products, which are generally higher under all conditions.

It’s not just the drought that creates higher prices. The cost of bringing those fruits, nuts and veggies to markets across the country also plays a role, in pushing prices out of the reach of some consumers.

And that could have a major impact on other aspects of American life. Dietary guidelines old and new emphasize the consumption of fruits, vegetables and nuts as the cornerstone of healthy eating. All of these are rich in nutrients and healthy fats that contribute to heart health, weight loss and a strong immune system. They’re potent weapons in the fight against obesity and the leading causes of death in the US – but if they’re priced out of the budget of many Americans, that could change.

Getting Americans to eat their veggies has long been a frustration for nutritionists and healthcare professions –even in the best of times. But the higher prices caused by California’s drought could push people toward less healthy alternatives – and that, some economists fear, could have a long term effect on the health care system.

The effects of the drought may prove to be a boon for other agricultural states, though. The production of some of California’s leading crops could shift to states in the South and Midwest where water is more plentiful and cheaper. That could also draw other commercial enterprises away from California, which could boost the struggling economies of states suffering from a stagnant job market and limited opportunities.

But what won’t happen right away. It takes time for crops to grow and get to market, and for other kinds of businesses to set up operations. There may be ways to reduce the impact of California’s drought on the heath and the pocketbook of American consumers – but those changes are a long way off.(Top image:Flickr/EvgenyDodorov)

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The American Monetary Association Team


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