California’s three-year drought, which ended with this season’s cool and wet weather, had complicated and serious impacts that have been poorly understood and reported. Some of the impacts were expected; others were surprising. The Pacific Institute has just completed a nine-month assessment of new data from California’s agricultural, energy, and environmental sectors to evaluate actual consequences of the drought for the state.

Analysis of state and federal data released over the past year finds that contrary to much of the media reporting, California’s agricultural community proved flexible and resilient, generating agricultural revenues in 2007, 2008, and 2009 that were the highest on record. And agriculture-related occupations remained a stable portion of total jobs available in areas directly impacted by water supply restrictions. Less frequently reported were the substantial impacts on energy production and aquatic ecosystems during the drought, which were economically and environmentally significant.

“More severe drought is inevitable, and the U.S. – and California in particular – has not reformed drought monitoring, evaluation, planning, and response strategies the way other countries and regions have,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute and lead author of the report. “To become more resilient to future droughts, it will be critical to shift from crisis-driven responses to long-term mitigation strategies.”

The Pacific Institute analysis, Impacts of the California Drought from 2007-2009, focused on three drought-sensitive sectors: agricultural production, energy production, and ecosystem health.

Among the critical findings:

Farm income rose as farmers implemented diverse coping strategies

California’s agricultural sector coped with reduced water availability with strategies like expanded reliance on local groundwater, temporary water transfers, fallowing, and shifting cropping patterns and types. These strategies proved highly successful. Overall, California’s 81,500 farms and ranches grossed $34.8 billion in revenue in 2009 – the third highest year on record and just below the all-time high of $38.4 billion in 2008, the second year of the drought.

Statewide, historical rates of decline in acreage actually slowed during the drought. Yield remained high throughout the drought period, only dropping below 2006 (wet year) levels once and in a single crop category, field and seed crops, during the final year of the drought (2009). Counties in the San Joaquin Valley largely sustained yields and revenue in the production of their top ranking (highest value) crops throughout the drought.