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Water-Energy Nexus

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California Agriculture



California’s bountiful food system can be attributed to both natural processes and human ingenuity. California’s sunny Mediterranean climate provides ideal growing conditions with cool, rainy winters and long dry summers. Large water projects, like the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project have engineered California’s water system to capture precipitation run-off and distribute it throughout the state year around. Sediment deposits carried by California’s rivers and streams contribute to the fertile soils that make large scale food production possible. Over 70,000 Farmers grow some 400 crops for worldwide distribution, with California being the leading producer of nearly 80 different crops, and holding 90% majority in production of some nuts, stone fruit and raisin grapes.

California agriculture developed under expectations of reasonably static hydrology. Droughts, flooding, and extreme heat are all natural variables in California’s climate, but increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are trapping heat and raising temperatures, contributing to a higher frequency of extreme weather and increased water demand. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, California’s largest surface water reservoir, is already seeing reductions in snow fall and snow water content. The current multi-year drought is curtailing farm surface water deliveries, forcing farmers to fallow land and pump groundwater at an unsustainable rate.  Alongside the threats of climate change, worldwide population growth is increasing pressure to produce higher crop yields to feed the expected 9.6 billion people on the planet by 2050. These demands will require California to protect and restore our natural resources, and implement innovation solutions to our current and future challenges.

Climate Change Impacts to Agriculture

Increased heat days by themselves may not be detrimental to crop production, but sourcing adequate water and plant nutrition to combat these and other stressors may cause problems. Some regions in the State may even find benefits from warmer temperatures such as expanded growing regions and seasons, and carbon fertilization could possibly lead to higher crop yields. However, extreme weather, water scarcity from increased droughts, and increased pest and weed pressures can easily outweigh these limited benefits.

Climate pollutants such as methane, impair the ability of plants to absorb CO2 and affect evaporation rates, cloud formation and precipitation levels (ARB SLCP). Aquatic ecosystem disruptions from ocean warming and acidification can impact commercial and subsistence fishing. Fish and shellfish have limited temperature and pH ranges in which they can survive and reproduce, this may cause mass species migrations that lead to over-competition for resources in one area.  Heat stress can affect livestock mortality, rate of disease and fertility, as well as milk and egg production. Feedstock production and quality can decline with added high heat days, and increased overnight temperatures can make chill hour requirement in certain fruits and nuts difficult to meet. Rainfed agriculture and rangeland production can decease or fail from a lack of precipitation. Earlier spring arrival and warmer winters can cause issues between bloom periods and pollinator arrival. Farmers dependent on groundwater are already feeling the impacts of water tables dropping and salt water intrusion from over pumping during surface water shortages.

Mitigation and Adaptation for Agriculture

GHG emission reduction and sequestration (mitigation) will help protect the planet from the costliest of climate change impacts, including in California agriculture. Regardless of reductions, the planet will experience a certain level of warming, due to previous emissions and the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2.

Agriculture has a role to play in reducing contributions to climate change, such as nutrient and irrigation management plans than reduce methane release, sequester carbon and prevent pollution. California’s dairies have a great opportunity through methane digestion to reduce GHG emission while producing renewable energy. Reducing on-farm energy use through lighting, pump, and climate control system retrofits saves money and reduces associated GHG emissions.    

California is making great strides in climate adaptation for the agriculture sector. Through legislation, citizen action, and grassroots organizations, California is ensuring the longevity of agriculture. Growers are becoming knowledgeable about their vulnerabilities and are building resiliency (adaptation) to future climate change impacts. Plant and livestock breeding for traits such as drought resistance, heat, and inundation tolerance will buffer losses from extreme weather.  Crop and livestock genetic diversity will help reduce losses from disease and pests.  Agricultural reliance on technological improvements to increase crop production is limited, but gains are still being made, yields continue to increase while farmed land decreases (CAS 2009). The uptake on conservation tillage methods such as no-tillage, strip-tillage and mulch tillage, have seen slow gains in California but is picking up momentum. Conservation tillage can increase soil carbon and water retention, and reduced tractor passes reduce GHG emissions. Amendments, such as mulch, compost and biochar can increase soil health, building resiliency against disease, pests and drought. Early pest detection and improved habitat for beneficial predators and pollinators will help prevent infestations and crop loss.

Climate Change on Your Plate

Climate change can impact the foods we eat every day. In an effort to spread awareness the Department of Water Resources has teamed with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly to launch a public education campaign called ‘The Climate Menu’. The goal of the campaign is to produce a variety of climate change and agriculture related educational materials relevant to the lives and diets of everyday people. The posters are meant to encourage the public to be prepared and to take action in combatting climate change. Please come back often to stay up-to-date on the most recent materials and information.



Click here or on the image to view a full-size PDF of the Climate Menu (pictured above)


Economic Impacts

Additional Agricultural Water-Energy Resources

Climate Change Consortium for Specialty Crops: Impacts and Strategies for Resilience

UC Cooperative Extension- Agriculture and Natural Resources

Sonoma Biochar Initiative

Natural Resources Conservation Service- Soil Health



 Please visit our partner agencies to learn more about what they’re doing to combat the impacts of climate change on agriculture:


CDFW           ITRC             CDFA