This past week, Almond farmers are fighting back, defending themselves from a statistic that was released: “It takes one gallon of water to produce one almond.”
KCRA reported this week, “The statistic then spread like wildfire on social media sites — and last week, people became increasingly critical when Gov. Jerry Brown instituted mandatory water restrictions on all municipalities, but spared agriculture this time around.
“That’s when the media discovered California’s $11 billion almond crop was drinking up about 10 percent of the state’s agricultural water and the finger-pointing began, sparking the Almond Board of California to release what it referred to as a ‘fact sheet’ containing eight items about almonds, agriculture and the drought.”
Various almond advocacy groups such as the Almond Board of California believe that almond growers are being unfairly targeted. Some state that water usage has decreased by 33 percent over the past two decades.
Moreover, California agriculture is going to take a huge hit. For instance, 620,000 acres of farmland will lie fallow this year because of water restrictions. That could cost about 23,000 jobs and be a $5.7 billion hit to the economy.
As we reported recently, the drought is being fueled not only by years of low rainfall, but by the combination of low precipitation and heat which has maintained and intensified it.
A recent statement suggests that by 2030, this heat driving the current drought could become a yearly occurrence.
“The drought is made of two components: not enough rain and too much heat,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton. “The rain deficit isn’t clearly connected to climate change, but the planetary warming has made it more likely that the weather would be hotter in California.”
The current drought, which started in 2011, is the worst in 120 years of record-keeping and some believe it is the worst in more than 1000.
The problem we face going into the future is that, over the last two decades, dry periods have overlapped with warm periods.
“It used to be that half the years were warm, and half were cool,” Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor in earth sciences at Stanford told the NY Times. “Now we’re in a regime where most of the years are warm.”
Scientists will continue to debate whether this drought is being super-fueled by global warming, but the bottom line is that if California is likely to have increased temperatures over the next twenty years, any dry years will be amplified by the heat.
The farmers and agricultural interests do not want to be seen as the boogey-men here, but the fact is they use a lot of water.
Agriculture in California is big business. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California agriculture is a $42.6 billion dollar industry that generates at least $100 billion in related economic activity.”
In fact, it has twice the size of any other state’s agriculture industry.
Here is the problem: California has a huge agricultural industry. It has land. It has good soil. What it doesn’t have is water.
In an article in 2013, Richard Cornett, Director of Communications at the Western Pant Health Association, asked the question: what happens if the US loses California food production?
He writes, “What if California suddenly lost its massive agricultural ability to feed the U.S. and the world? What impact would this have on consumer choices and food prices?”
He writes, “A loss of California ag production would hit hard consumers’ wallets and their diets would become less balanced. This is because our state produces a sizable majority of American fruits, vegetables and nuts; 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots and the list goes on and on. A lot of this is due to our soil and climate. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California’s output per acre.”
He argues, “The effect on consumer prices would become attention-grabbing. Rising prices would force Americans to alter their diets.”
“Young people and the poor in America, more than others, eat less fresh fruit when prices rise,” he notes.
What this suggests is that the attack on the agricultural industry is probably not the place to go. Those who see this as a social justice issue, and see agriculture as big business protecting the wealthy, should recognize the impact on the poor and children should agricultural production fall.
Instead, I think we need to look at alternatives.
First, we have to start with conservation because it is the most immediate way to make what water we have last longer.
Second, we need to start planning long term. A few years ago, when the water issue first came forward, the generally accepted notion was that global warming projections probably do not decrease the amount of precipitation, but it definitely could decrease the type of precipitation.
We saw this during the past year, we had some major storms in December and February, but they were warmer and there was little snow produced.
Dr. Diffenbaugh noted in his interview with the NY Times that normally the snowpack stores the water, so that it gradually melts in the spring and summer and goes to the reservoirs. But, with higher temperatures, the snow melts sooner, evaporates quicker, and we do not end up storing as much.
More importantly, we are more likely to have extreme periods which produce shortfalls. So how do we plan for those shortfalls?
One way is to invest in new technologies that can save water.
Another way is to farm products that are less water intensive.
Moreover, we can examine new technologies that can make better use of the water we have. Most specifically, can we make desalinization processes competitive?
Finally, perhaps the rest of the country can help here. California has the land, climate, and soils necessary for farming, but not the water. Can we find ways to get water from places that have plenty to places that do not have enough?
—David M. Greenwald reporting