Corresponding Author

Wonsuh Song


In recent years, the western United States has been experiencing severe droughts. In this paper we focus on the state of California, which has a complex and vast water conveyance and irrigation system to support intensive agricultural production. We examine agricultural production and exports, in particular ‘virtual water’ exports, to better understand whether and how agricultural producers responded to recent drought conditions. We specifically focus on agricultural exports from 2010 to 2019 in order to better understand virtual water export during the recent drought. We show that despite occurrence of severe drought, California growers have largely continued their agricultural production and exports. The value of agricultural exports between 2010 and 2019 increased by 1.5 times. Water-intensive agricultural products, including dairy products and tree nuts, represent a high proportion of agricultural exports. This persistence of agricultural production and export is made possible due to a reliance on water management strategies that are unsustainable in the long term—primarily, in the case of California’s Central Valley, overdraft of groundwater. We argue that despite recent policy advances such as attempts to control groundwater overuse, California’s continued agricultural production and export system exacerbates an unsustainable situation, given persistence of drought conditions and the need to support many other human and ecological water uses.



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