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Golden State’s Drought Emergency Bearing Down on Schools

In the midst of the state’s worst drought in 500 years, policy makers are desperately seeking stop-gap measures to address California’s dire water needs.  Governor Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency in January, and state and federal relief programs should help communities and farmers access reliable water sources, as well as help fire agencies prepare for an extreme wildfire season after a historically dry winter. But the aid is a far cry from the billions of dollars in losses the state ultimately expects to lose due to the drought, including in the form of lost revenue for schools.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, moderate to exceptional drought now spans the entire state – the first time that milestone has been reached since the Drought Monitor began tracking in 1999. Extreme and exceptional drought spans much of the state’s most productive agricultural regions, leaving farmers and laborers with a collectively bleak outlook on their upcoming harvest season. 

Many California farms have been cultivated on semi-arid land, creating an entire industry dependent on a complex irrigation system for its lifeblood.  Nerves are running high in the thirsty state, which is far and away the nation’s leading agricultural producer, harvesting half of America’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.  The industry provides approximately 450,000 jobs in California, according to the state’s Employment Development Department, thousands of which are at risk with a projected $7.5 billion in direct and indirect losses on the horizon.

Those losses are already being felt in communities in the San Joaquin Valley, which provides nearly half of the state’s agricultural jobs. One surprising manifestation, recently reported by NPR, is the relationship between the drought and school districts in agricultural communities, which are expected to face budget shortfalls as a result. The reason?  As the drought dries up agricultural jobs across the state, those workers and their families are heading for greener pastures in other states, or even returning south of the border. Because school funding is tied in part to average daily attendance (ADA), empty fields and empty desks mean less revenue for districts.

This current exodus harkens back to the migration of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s classic, Grapes of Wrath. The novel follows the Joad’s flight from drought-stricken Oklahoma to ‘The land of milk and honey – California,’ but resonates today with the dismal landscape of the state’s agrarian communities.    

There is a domino effect in these agriculture communities when the farm jobs dissipate.  Employment dwindles with no money generated for local business, forcing families to move.  California’s Central Valley is already characterized by unemployment rates far higher than the rest of the state despite the ag-industry generating $44.7 billion annually, and  some project a brutal 20,000 job loss in agriculture alone that could further cripple regional economies.

There is some short-term hope of reprieve for school administrators, however. Last month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, promised to maintain ADA funding levels for the year. The decrease in attendance levels, like much of the drought’s impact, won’t be fully realized until harvesting begins in earnest, typically in early June. By then, many schools will have adjourned for summer recess. But the prospect of similarly dry years to come makes this a long-term problem requiring long-term solutions.

Experts have long warned that marginalized communities around the world will disproportionately bear the burden of extreme weather patterns associated with climate change. The current California drought is only the most recent and extreme reminder of the broad-ranging impacts of a changing climate – and what could become the new normal for our state and the larger Western region.

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