Workers arrange peppers as they harvested peppers on to a truck at the Uesugi Farm in Byron, California, U.S., on Thursday, July 16, 2015.
Bloomberg/Getty Images
By Nash Jenkins
August 27, 2015

The worst drought in at least 120 years has seemingly failed to hamper California’s agricultural sector, which drew in more than $33 billion in crop revenue in 2014: the second-highest ever recorded in the state. The highest — $480 million more — came the year before. The industry employed 417,000 people last year, the state’s largest agricultural workforce on record.

This information is presented in a new study out of the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, which delivered the positive news with a caveat. The study partly attributes the record profits to a shift toward “higher value” crops — almonds, pistachios, wine grapes — but also to “unsustainable” methods of groundwater pumping, which could further worsen the increasingly arid earth in the state.

“One of the reasons that agricultural revenues and employment are as strong as they are is because of groundwater overdraft,” Heather Cooley, the lead author of the study, told the Desert Sun. “It can help insulate the agricultural sector from some of the short-term impacts, but it does create impacts and costs that are borne by others, both in current and future generations.”

On whole, California’s farms rely on groundwater for about 40% of all water used for irrigation, though the study is also careful to address discrepancies between regions across the state. Ten mostly coastal counties draw 90% of their irrigation water from the ground.

The same principle of variation applied to employment in 2014. Particularly infertile areas, like the San Joaquin Valley (whose poverty and unemployment levels have earned it the nickname “the Appalachia of the West”), saw the agricultural workforce markedly shrink.

Ultimately, the study’s primary concern is the depletion of California’s groundwater, which has “shifted the burden to others, including current and future generations forced to dig deeper wells, find alternative drinking-water sources, and repair infrastructure damaged by subsidence.”

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