Lawns versus Almonds – Can’t We All Just Get Along?

California Agriculture journal, July - September 2013, Volume 67, Issue 3. Outlook: Specialty crops and methyl bromide alternatives: taking stock after 7 yearsBy Leanna Sweha

Last week, the East Bay Express published an article by Robert Gammon entitled “California Targets Wrong Water Wasters.

Reflecting on the state’s emergency water conservation rules, Gammon writes, “…while it’s true that many households and businesses are still wasting lots of water — and we need tougher rules to stop them — the true water wasters are large agricultural interests that are increasingly growing water-intensive crops, particularly almonds, in extremely dry sections of California, including the western San Joaquin Valley.”

Gammon continues, “Right now, California is producing far more almonds than state residents can consume. So much so that at least 70 percent of the state’s almond crop is now exported — much of it to China. In other words, we’re essentially exporting our water to China.”

Yes, it’s a fact. Almonds are a water-intensive crop. However, agricultural water use is not so straightforward. And recent history and data contradict Gammon’s claims that almond growers are big water wasters.

Recent history was laid out by Joe MacIlvaine, President of Paramount Farms – the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds – at a Public Policy Institute of California drought forum in January. He noted that, after the 1987-1991 drought, Central Valley agriculture realized that water would be the limiting resource for the foreseeable future.

“We took a number of actions to address that situation. First, we recognized that, in order to pay for an increasingly scarce water supply, we were going to have to farm more valuable crops…Second, we instituted a massive effort to research the most efficient way to use water…There has been an absolute transformation in irrigation practices in California.”

Almonds are a high value crop. Yolo County reported that almond meats were worth $4,205 per ton in 2013. Compare this to the county’s top commodity – processing tomatoes – which brought in $ 70.23 per ton in 2013. Even almond hulls pulled in $100 per ton that year.

Across the state, almond acreage increased from about 100,000 acres in 1964 to over 750,000 acres in 2011.  During the same time period – between 1967 and 2010 – the Department of Water Resources (DWR) reports that the total water applied to all crops in the state declined by 5.1 percent. This was largely the result of investments in irrigation efficiency.

Between 1991 and 2010, over two million acres moved from gravity irrigation (furrow and flood) to drip, micro sprinkler and subsurface methods. This included almonds. According to the California Almond Board, more than 70 percent of growers surveyed last year said they use drip or micro sprinklers. And more than 80 percent said they use demand-based instead of scheduled irrigation.

The Center for Irrigation Technology (CIRT) at CSU Fresno did an irrigation efficiency study in 2011. The authors wrote, “Claims of excessive irrigation inefficiencies, with resulting large volumes of new water available, are wrong…much of purported agricultural waste is recovered and reused by other agricultural interests, as well as by [municipalities and industry] or the environment.”

This is a reference to “recoverable” water – irrigation water that crops do not use and which becomes available for other beneficial uses. For example, let’s say a grower uses furrow irrigation, and the excess water percolates down and recharges a groundwater basin which is pumped to supply a small community. The grower changes over to drip irrigation, and the water is now mostly absorbed by the crop. This causes a deficit to the groundwater basin, which the community must make up from other sources. The result is no net new water.

The CIRT study estimated that, assuming high levels of investment, potential new water from agricultural efficiency would be 330,000 acre‐feet per year – 1.3 percent of the total amount used by agriculture. Although real water, it’s only about 0.5 percent of California’s total annual water use.

In other words, you can only squeeze so much out of water use efficiency, due to the recoverable water factor and because efficient systems are largely already in place. The only assured way to create lots of new water is to fallow land. Perhaps this is what Mr. Gammon is really after.

UC Davis estimated the total economic impact of the 2014 California almond industry at $21.5 billion, generating around 104,000 jobs. The same study called the industry “especially important to the economy of the California Central Valley.”

Almonds can cover the rising costs of water, and this has been an incentive to plant almonds for decades. The industry has invested in water conservation and will continue to do so into the future. This doesn’t sound like waste. It sounds like a vicious cycle.

How to price water to reflect its true cost is the real public policy question facing California. Perhaps we’ll reach the point where it’s not worth it to farm almonds in large parts of the San Joaquin Valley. But it won’t be because farmers failed to use water as efficiently as possible.

Leanna M Sweha, JD, has been a resident of Davis for 20 years.  As a young molecular biologist in a USDA lab working to engineer Roundup-resistant corn, she grew interested in sustainable agriculture.  Fascinated with the legal and policy issues of agricultural genetics, she became an attorney specializing in agricultural and natural resources law.  She has worked for the California Resources Agency and the UC Davis Office of Research.

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  1. Don Shor

    Excellent article! It certainly comports with my observations about how orchards are being irrigated now. Farmers all around us are investing a lot of money in more efficient irrigation systems.

  2. Frankly

    But Don, you say that we have plenty of water to farm all the land that you wants us to lock up in permanent ag easement?  I don’t understand… why should we have to fallow any farmland in this case?

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    We need more water storage, and we recently voted for a huge state bond. Let’s get it going. We’ve about doubled our population in the past 35 years with minimal new reservoirs.

    Progressives fight us on new low-cost power options, on new freeways, on new reservoirs, but all the while another 15-20 million people moved here. They need energy, water, and other resources. I’m all for conservation, but that is just one part of the equation.

    1. Alan Miller

      Freeways and reservoirs?  Seriously?

      Are you looking for efficiency in water and transportation, or are you — as you seem to be — looking for massive government handouts to corporations that pour concrete en masse?

  4. DavisBurns

    I wonder about the logic of the center of irrigation technology.  If a farmers pumps water out of the aquifer and uses it inefficiently with furrow irrigation, a portion evaporates.  Eventually, it should come back as rainfall…unless weather patterns result in the rain falling where it doesn’t recharge our system.  Nevertheless, if he pumps it from the aquifer, there is less in the aquifer for other agricultural uses or for the small community downstream.  If he uses efficient irrigation, he pumps less out of the aquifer resulting in more for the small community mentioned in the article.  Someone please correct me if I’m missing something.

    by this logic, the more water I use to irrigate my yard (but not to fill my pool) the more “recoverable water” percolates down to recharge the aquifer.  Therefore, I should really just pay for the net that I use, not the excess.

    1. Don Shor

      It depends on which aquifer the groundwater is being pumped from. The City of Davis is now pumping from deep aquifers that are not directly recharged (so far as we know) from water applied above. The water we are using right now is decades or even centuries old. The water you apply to the ground will show up in shallower aquifers, someday.
      Groundwater sources are highly variable around the state. Some areas are over drafting even under normal rainfall conditions. Some aren’t. Nearly every region is pumping shallow and intermediate aquifers faster than the rate of recharge right now. Whether we are presently doing that from the deep aquifers in Davis is unknown, IMO.

      1. hpierce

        Mainly correct, Don, as to the City’s used aquifers not receiving any water applications from lawns or local agriculture.  Most of the common thought is that the deep aquifer strata “daylights” in the foothills to the west, and does receive “replenishment”, and is not ‘permanently mined’ water.  The deeper aquifers are not fully understood, but the static water levels show that they are recharged in ‘normal’ or wet years.

        1. Don Shor

          They appear to be recharged, but not with current water. My recollection is that the water doesn’t test positive for radium isotope, so it’s older than WWII at least. So the recharge must be with lateral water movement of other old water. Or something.

        2. hpierce

          Don… haven’t read ALL the studies, but many… you are absolutely right in the fact that there are open questions, subject to further study and interpretation.  But one indication (besides the isotopes) is that the static levels do recover, which it would not do (with a “lag”, to be sure) if it was just coming from ‘ancient’ water.  Groundwater at the lower levels migrates at “slow” rates.  We really just don’t know.

  5. Doby Fleeman

    Don & hpierce,

    Hopefully, you can help me understand how:

    between 1967 and 2010 – the Department of Water Resources (DWR)
    that the total water applied to all crops in the state declined by 5.1 percent.

    I’ll admit, I haven’t read the referenced report, but I am curious how does it know?  That is my question.  I has been my understanding there is no active monitoring of groundwater consumption in the state of California.   I thought that had been the point of a bill recently passed in California legislature.

    Given the astounding growth in the state’s agricultural output between 1967-2010, if we were actually able to reduce aggregate irrigation water use by 5.1 % during that same period – that is indeed remarkable.

    I remain troubled, however, by continuing reports of land subsidence in the Central Valley and wonder how – if we are operating at a lower annual rate of consumption – why the aquifers continue to lower.


  6. Dave Hart

    First of all, if you want to know how DWR knows there is a reduction in water use, you will have to read the report.  Thanks for including the link, but it needs to be read if you want to have any kind of informed opinion.

    I breezed through it and the first thing that comes to my mind is that 5% reduction is pretty damn small in terms of the lack of actual measurements.  However, knowing DWR like I do, you would be a fool to doubt that they have the best guestimate available based on grower surveys, water deliveries, best accepted practices.   One thing I noticed is the massive switch from surface irrigation methods to drip systems: 7 million acres in furrow/flood in 1970 to 3.5 million in 2010; and zero acres in drip in 1970 to 3.5 million in 2010.  No more tail water or excessive surface evaporation.  The trend in the wine grape industry to intentionally stress the vines to some extent for better quality grapes and the measurable reduction in “irrecoverable” losses of water to salt sinks all could easily add up to 5% statewide.

    I’m not a farmer in California.  I do think trying to grow crops that require 3 to 4 feet of water for the season in parts of the state that only average 5 inches of rain per year is asking for trouble on top of disaster. You can’t expect to get away with that forever.  There should always be some kind of equivalency of sustainable supply with respect to what you are growing.  In an area like the Sacramento Valley, growing almonds that uses say 4 feet of water per year in an area that gets 2 feet of rain makes a certain amount of sense and may pencil out as sustainable with surface supplies and supplemental groundwater.  I think trying to grow the same crop in the southern San Joaquin Valley where you only get 0.4 feet of rain is risky business at best even assuming “average” precipitation.  What is the likelihood of a “new” average yet to be determined?

    1. Doby Fleeman

      With apologies for my intellectual laziness, I do appreciate your additional research and summary comments.
      Clearly, however, the consumption of 2x the average, historical available surface water is unlikely to be sustainable.  Moreover, the artificially underpriced cost of water (or almost free in the cost of finite supplies of groundwater) provides a strong profit incentive to produce and deliver underpriced products to the marketplace.
      Where I’m headed with line of thought is that it really helps bring into focus the question of who will be expected to bear the brunt of the new infrastructure costs to construct and maintain new catchment reservoirs and other water delivery systems for improved harvesting and management of our finite water resources. 
      Higher value crops are a wonderful thing for the farmer, the production and processing industries, and the state’s economy.   The question of how to equitably distribute the higher, marginal costs of additional, new irrigation water would seem to be a reasonable issue for future discussions.

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