Early 2015 drought loss numbers are coming in – Where is my crystal ball?

By: Sonia A. Hall

Drought conditions across the western U.S. in August 2015. Source: U.S. Drought Monitor Map Archive http://bit.ly/1mW1DxL

There is little doubt that last year’s high temperatures and water scarcity—because of the warm, low-snowpack winter—had a significant economic impact on Pacific Northwest agriculture. A Washington Department of Agriculture (WSDA) preliminary report places losses at approximately $325 million statewide, based on an initial estimate. These numbers will change as better data roll in. Meanwhile, a study by University of California–Davis researcher Richard Howitt and colleagues places that state’s crop revenue losses due to drought at $900 million. While I have not found similar reports for Oregon and Idaho, these two states also felt the drought, particularly in Oregon.In an earlier post I described how knowing that a particular year’s weather is representative of future climate projections can give us a good sense of what may be ahead. To the extent that this is true, then a better understanding of the impacts last year’s conditions had on agriculture can give us a sense of what we can expect as the climate warms. And the diversity of growers’ responses and how effective they were can give us ideas about what strategies to try as the climate changes.

Climate change was by no means the focus of the WSDA’s interim report. However, some of the authors’ findings are relevant to thinking about how to adapt our region’s agriculture to a changing climate.

Here are some of those findings, and the questions they raised in my mind:

Apple orchard in the Roza Irrigation District, Washington State. September 2015. Credit: Sonia A. Hall

Apple orchard in the Roza Irrigation District, Washington State. September 2015. Credit: Sonia A. Hall

  • The impacts on dryland crops were larger than on irrigated crops—no surprise there. However, the impacts on different irrigated crops varied from almost none on cherries and pears—that are harvested early in the season or still green, respectively—to over $86 million for apples. Can the differences in growth cycle and harvesting dates between crops or varieties be used to align production with temperature and water availability in the future? How far can this strategy take us?
  • Apples were more affected in the south (Yakima Valley) than in the northern counties (Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan), so geographic variation within the region is something to pay attention to. This may not help too many individual growers, unless they manage orchards across the region. But could it be important for packers, processors, and other ag industry sectors? Is the geographic variation in impacts because growers are already using different varieties or practices? How reasonable is it to expect regional shifts in where crops are grown? 
  • A majority of the growers surveyed by WSDA stated that they expect to see multi-year impacts from the 2015 drought. About one third also stated that they’d invested in infrastructure in response to the drought and high temperatures. Examples of these improvements included shade cloth, micro sprinklers, or more efficient irrigation equipment. Could these investments and improvements help mitigate some of the multi-year effects? And when thinking about climate change, can such improvements reduce losses from future droughts? Which improvements are most effective over the long-term?
  • Respondents were evenly split (more or less) in terms of seeing greater pest pressure because of drought and high temperatures, or not. One year of high temperatures and low snowpack does not provide sufficient data to know where and how pests will adapt to our future climates. What would be the best early warning signal that can indicate whether climate change is leading to increases in pest pressure, or not?
  • The WSDA found most growers willing to fill out the survey, because they support actual data informing legislators’ and regulators’ decisions related to drought relief. What data should we be collecting now, to inform policy and regulation decisions on adaptation to a changing climate?

The WSDA report ends on a rather dire note, stating “Farming operations will struggle to stay solvent, despite their technological innovation and adapting practices, if climate and weather changes like those seen in 2015 become more regular.” The challenge before us is to identify the best innovations and adaptation practices, and be able to implement them with confidence as soon as possible, to avoid having this scenario come to pass.

What questions do these observations raise in your mind? Post them in the Comments box below, and we’ll tackle them in future posts on AgClimate.net.

Literature Cited:

Richard E. Howitt, Duncan MacEwan, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Jay R. Lund, Daniel A. Sumner (2015). “Economic Analysis of the 2015 Drought for California Agriculture”. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California – Davis, Davis, CA, 16 pp. Available online at https://watershed.ucdavis.edu/files/biblio/Final_Drought%20Report_08182015_Full_Report_WithAppendices.pdf

Sonia Hall is an Associate in Research with the Center for Sustaining Ag & Natural Resources at Washington State University.

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