New satellite imagery has revealed that a significant area of California's rice fields has been left unharvested, leading to fears of a "mini dust bowl" due to diminishing water supplies. The rice capital of California, Colusa, has been particularly hard hit, with many fields appearing fallow. Third-generation rice farmer Kurt Richter has described the area as an "abandoned wasteland," and has warned that a mini dust bowl could emerge west of the Sacramento River in Colusa County due to the scorching heat and lack of moisture.
The US Department of Agriculture has reported that around 300,000 of the 550,000 acres committed to rice growing in California will go without harvest, potentially driving up sushi prices nationwide as most of the rice produced in the state is for this purpose. This collapse in rice production in the state is expected to result in an estimated $500 million loss for farmers, 40% of which will be covered by federal crop insurance, according to UC Davis agricultural economist Aaron Smith.
Satellite imagery from Sentinel Hub shows that green fields can still be seen in Butte County, where farmers have planted slightly more acres of rice than last year. Luis Espino, a farm advisor at UC ANR's cooperative extension in Butte, has highlighted the importance of water sourcing, which is why some rice farms can source more water than others. Eastside farmers rely on Lake Oroville, which has been able to capture more water than Shasta Lake, where the current storage is less than half of the average storage for this time of year. Farmers in the Sacramento River watershed who rely on water from Shasta, including Richter's family farm operation, are receiving between 0% and 18% of their water deliveries this year from government-run water projects. In contrast, farmers in Butte and Yuba counties received approximately 75%.
Across the six top-producing counties of the rice capital, only two will be unaffected by the drought. The state of California is responsible for a significant amount of US food production, and the lack of water supply to farmers could exacerbate the food crisis. Earlier this year, we reported that California would be cutting water to cities and farmland due to the ongoing drought, and by summer, much of the farmland had already turned to dust.
The situation in California highlights the need for sustainable and resilient agricultural practices that can cope with dwindling water supplies. As water becomes increasingly scarce, it will become even more crucial for farmers to explore innovative ways of irrigating crops, such as using drought-tolerant varieties or drip irrigation. In the long term, policymakers and industry leaders will need to collaborate to develop more sustainable water management strategies to ensure that California's agricultural sector can continue to thrive.