The Nation's Salad Bowl Is Turning To Dust

The entire state of California is reeling from three years of catastrophic drought that will soon force cities and farmers to limit the amount of water they use during the summer, the driest time of the year.

Central Valley, often called the “nation’s salad bowl” because it provides a majority of our fruits and vegetables, has been especially hard hit by the ongoing drought.

One-third of produce in the United States is grown in the Central Valley, made up of Sacramento Valley in the north and San Joaquin Valley in the south.

Here’s how these crippling water shortages and restrictions are putting our food supply at risk.

While we normally think of California as warm and sunny, the Sierra Nevada mountains in the north are usually coated with feet of snow. Many of California's reservoirs are fed by mountain runoff from snow that melts in the spring and summer.

Since the 1960s, the California Aqueduct has carried meltwater from the Sierra mountains in the north to croplands in the south through a network of canals, tunnels, and pipelines.

But this year, California's reservoirs will not be replenished over the spring and summer by the melting snowpack.

In the final snow survey of 2014, water officials said the statewide snowpack water content was 18% of normal for that date.

In Phillips, California, where 40 inches of snow is typical on May 1, the California water department's chief of snow surveys measured the snowpack at zero.

In March, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that Central Valley farmers would receive no water through the federal irrigation program, a system of reservoirs, rivers, and canals that is normally refilled each year by ice melt from the snow-capped peaks in Northern California.

The federally run Central Valley Project typically provides enough water to irrigate 3 million acres of agricultural land during drought-free years.

But now irrigation channels can't deliver water to farms.

And fields have gone dry.

The crippling drought threatens one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

California produces over 250 different crops and is the leading producer of foods like almonds, artichokes, raisins, and walnuts.

This year, more than half a million acres of crop land have been left unplanted due to water shortages.

Almond farmer Barry Baker had to remove 20% of his almond trees because he didn't have access to enough water, according to Reuters.

With rising water costs, avocado groves have also been left to wither.

A preliminary study by the UC Davis Center predicted that the drought could cost Central Valley's farm industry $US1.7 billion in 2014.

Additional groundwater pumping to make up for irrigation losses could cost $US450 million, the report said. That's on top of the losses farmers have already suffered.

All of these losses could put 14,000 farmworkers out of a job.

In the face of water shortages, many farmers have switched to drip irrigation, which uses less water than traditional sprinklers.

Others have hired well drillers to tap water underground.

The drought also hurts cattle ranchers. Because there's no grass for the cows to graze on, some ranchers now have to spend more than $US1,000 each day on hay for feed.

Food banks are struggling to keep canned goods on the shelves as food prices spike due to the drought.

But there's hope ahead: A climate pattern known as El Nino, expected to develop this summer or fall, could bring much-needed rain to the water-starved state. But that's only a temporary solution, as the drought could return after a spike in precipitation.

Houseboats are docked at Bridge Bay in Shasta Lake, which is 100 feet (30 meters) below its normal levels, in Shasta, California January 23, 2014.

For now, California is just trying to cope. On Thursday night, the Senate passed a drought-relief bill that would 'ease restrictions on water exports from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to farms and cities,' according to SFGate. However, environmentalists fear that the water bill would weaken protection for endangered fish.

At the same time, California faces a long-term problem. Major climate change reports have recently predicted increased warming and drought in the Southwest with continued decline of the snowpack. Rising temperatures mean continued threats to agriculture and increased risks of wildfires.

A firefighter battles the Ranch Fire near San Diego, California May 13, 2014.

Rising temperatures are affecting the planet in many ways.

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