My View II: In Defense of Almonds or Re-Examining Agriculture in California

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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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45 Comments

  1. DanH

    There are glacier lakes full of pristine water in Canada. The Canadians aren’t using them for anything. Let’s extend the Pat and Jerry Brown policy of bigger and better ditches, pipelines and dams and go for more water for the Golden State.

    On the other hand we could look at reducing the demand for water. At a world population over seven billion there are just too many super apes running around this planet consuming resources. About four billion less would be sustainable. Two or three generations of a world wide one child policy may be a better idea than pipelines to Canada.

     

    1. DavisBurns

      you are correct. Four billion less would be more sustainable. Perhaps we could begin with not increasing our numbers and making a stable population a priority. This is a wrench in the capitalist economic model, the only model we have, as it is predicated on constant growth. To make it local, innovation parks are growth we can’t sustain nor can we ACCOMODATE UCDs growth. When we start talking about how many people we can have based on water use, I will think we are serious about trying to live in the future that has already begun

      1. DanH

        Epidemics have made profound changes in world population in the past but only the likes of Dr. Strangelove would recommend genocide. The Plague of Justinian killed 40% of the European population and the Black Death killed 30-70% with perhaps an equal percentage in Asia.

        1. hpierce

          Based on your posts on this subject, DanH, you’d welcome the plague again.  Nice.  Will you and yours volunteer to be first?  If not, why not?

    2. Topcat

      At a world population over seven billion there are just too many super apes running around this planet consuming resources. About four billion less would be sustainable.

      I agree that a world population of seven billion that is growing at a rate of about 95 million per year is not sustainable.  Unfortunately,  I don’t see any indication that humans will voluntarily reduce population growth. It’s more likely that world population will continue to grow.  Humans will continue to adapt to try to accommodate this growing population, but eventually nature will take it’s inevitable course and stop the growth.

      1. Don Shor

        I don’t see any indication that humans will voluntarily reduce population growth.

        Actually, we nearly always do as our societies get wealthier and better educated, unless religion gets in the way of access and education about birth control.

      2. Topcat

        In a paper published last year in Science, demographers from several universities and the United Nations Population Division conclude that instead of leveling off in the second half of the 21st century, as the UN predicted less than a decade ago, the world’s population will continue to grow beyond 2100.

        And for the first time, through the use of a “probabilistic” statistical method, the Science paper establishes a range of uncertainty around its central estimate-9.6 billion Earthlings in 2050, 10.9 billion by 2100. There’s an 80 percent chance, the authors conclude, that the actual number of people in 2100 will be somewhere between 9.6 and 12.3 billion.

        Our children and grandchildren will be living in a much more crowded world.

  2. Tia Will

    DanH

    I really appreciate your statement. When those who do not believe in conservation as a principle state that there is always plenty of water since we live in a closed system where water is always conserved, what is being ignored is that, yes, the quantity of water is fixed, but the demand for it is not. More humans require more resources which are ultimately fixed. The problem is not thus just logistics but is an eventual lack of the resource as the population increases.

    I see voluntary limitation of reproduction with readily available, free, long acting, reversible contraceptives as a major step forward for any woman or man who wants to manage their sexuality responsibly, something we all should be promoting.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      Perhaps we should rethink compelling people to get their kids vaccinated. In fact, maybe we should encourage “beliefs” that lead otherwise intelligent people to oppose vaccination. Maybe we can hire a few good science fiction and fantasy writers to create a few new religions to spread the word about glory in the afterlife for all those who die from infectious diseases prior to reproducing. Maybe all those who voluntarily refuse to eat almonds or drink water can be promised lots of postmortem virgins in the sky along with a tax deduction for their contribution to spreading the word. Oink!

        1. Napoleon Pig IV

          Maybe the connection between DanH’s comment on needing about 4 billion fewer people and Tia’s on contraception and mine on encouraging “true believers” to not get vaccinated was a bit of a meandering path. However, I see others mention epidemics, which would be the logical consequence of widespread “true belief” in fantasy versus science, so I’m not really that far off the mark.

          But you didn’t comment on the second part of my astute observation. Don’t you agree that postmortem virgins for almond and water abstainers is a reasonable theological concept? Oink!

    2. hpierce

      Actually, the poster you seem to be responding to, would advocate IRreversible contraceptives.  By that theory, anyone who is not first-born/only child, please get out of the gene pool, NOW.  I’m good. So is my spouse.

      1. DanH

        Permanent contraception is certainly a viable choice. I had it done myself after making my contribution to the gene pool. Financial incentives for one-child families have proven effective in China with a generation of well-off spoiled brats being one of the downsides.

        1. hpierce

          Maybe you should have refrained from the pool.  Have you spawned more than one child? Did your parents, grandparents?  I can ask this, based on the fact that the grandparents on one side had exactly one grandchild.  Me. By your formula, if my grandparents would have had one child, and the offspring would have had one child, here I am. You?

        2. Topcat

          Financial incentives for one-child families have proven effective in China with a generation of well-off spoiled brats being one of the downsides.

          Interesting to note that we are seeing a result of China’s one child policy right here in Davis.  We have a large number of those Chinese students who are only children at UCD.  As only children, they were given lots of parental attention and advantages.  These Chinese students are generally smart, hard working, and studious. Perhaps some of the Chinese only children are “spoiled brats”, but that has not been my experience from the ones I’ve known with here in Davis.

  3. Don Shor

    Definition of irony: someone munching on their hummus dip, complaining about the water use by almonds. Garbanzo beans use more water per unit than almonds.

    For agricultural and urban water use our state needs to —

    Increase research in controlled/regulated deficit irrigation of tree and vine crops — particularly applicable to almonds and wine grapes.

    Incentivize efficient delivery systems for row crops (drip, microspray).

    Increase storage, increased reservoir construction and expansion, and local stormwater capture and retention.

    Continue research and development of groundwater recharge and storage.

    Identify and develop effective policies (ie, regulate) regions that are overdrafting groundwater.

    Regulate interdistrict water transfers.

    1. hpierce

      Don… do you know (I certainly don’t) if the ‘water demands’ of any of the crops take into account the water “delivered” directly to the crop by rainfall?  ‘Normal’ rainfall for this area is ~ 18″, or, about 1.5 acre-foot/acre.  Or, about 487,000 gallons per acre. That would mean (all other things equal) that an almond orchard could produce 487,000 almonds/acre without wells, surface water transfers. [normal year]

      Would think that ag uses are “entitled” to the rainfall they get.  I also tend to favor water rights to the water that lies directly beneath a property.

      1. Doby Fleeman

        hpierce,

        Interesting concepts.  Entitlement to consumption for production equivalent to some percentage of the rainfall minus ambient evaporation makes a lot of sense.

        As soon as you extend that discussion to “entitlements” for the water underlying the land, however, you begin to thread a more delicate equation.  Namely, if market forces push nutmeats into a higher profit category, the natural market response would be to convert land to almonds a pump water as necessary to milk that investment.

        Viewed as limited natural resource – should water be viewed as any different from oil, gold or coal?   Some argue it is a renewable resource, others not so much.  Are there, or should there be, extraction fees?   What of the potential damage to adjacent piping, irrigation channels, aqueducts that might be damaged as the result of the extraction – how should those affected asset holders be compensated for such consequences?

        All of these types of issues begin to arise when market forces are not allowed to more fully engage, partial or no regulation or oversight is the norm, or when market forces are subverted by irrational, non-sustainable pricing, or other incentivising influences.

        If the raw material underlying the property is free, net of utility, equipment and piping costs, there are no real impediments to converting as much as possible, as quickly as possible into such use – other than the very real risks of overconsumption or erratic supply.

        So the piece of the equation that continue to elude the conversation is the “cost of water” and “who pays the tariff to enhance and maintain any required manmade infrastructure for acquisition, storage and delivery”?  In essence, this conversation is going on right now with respect to spending of recent bond proceeds.  It’s one thing to have the bond proceeds to build the infrastructure, but how is revenue to be collected and from whom, to repay the bonds?

        It would nice to see some quantitative information on the “rates” issue – just as it was to see that part of the conversation unfold here in the city.  There is a reference in today’s Bee about the huge differential in the spot price of water based on the current drought, with costs doubling in some cases to $665 per acre foot, while in other markets rates have risen more than tenfold from $40 to $425 an acre foot.

        Somebody is obviously bringing in some serious coin from these water trades, but how does it all tie back to the original question of who is paying and how much for the new infrastructure and associated operating costs associated with new capacity being proposed?

        Is the current system designed to facilitate and complement a rational system of pricing and allocation?  If not, are there suggestions that might help to improve current systems?

        To big question to digest, then I’d settle for basic understanding of how new bond monies are planned to be invested and how those costs will be allocated as between the users and the taxpayers.

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

         

      2. Don Shor

        I believe that when you see a reference to acre-feet or acre-inches, that is to water applied — so the rainfall would reduce the acre-feet used on a crop in a region. So acre-feet for a crop in Yolo County would be lower than acre-feet in Fresno County. Statistics you see are usually either an average for a crop, or they show the range. That’s off the top of my head, recollection from a long time ago. ET, on the other hand, is the total water the plant/crop uses (not the total applied).
        There is no direct connection between local rainfall and water rights. Water rights usually pertain to developed water supplies. Groundwater rights are a whole ‘nother thing.
        Here: http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/board_info/water_rights_process.shtml#law
        Key words: “reasonable and beneficial use.”

        1. hpierce

          “I believe that when you see a reference to acre-feet or acre-inches, that is to water applied — so the rainfall would reduce the acre-feet used on a crop in a region.”  Thank you, Don.  

          So, a gallon of water per almond isn’t a ‘fixed amount’.

    2. DanH

      Groundwater recharge gets complicated if the goal is production of drinking water as opposed to irrigation water. Our Davis deep aquifer is part of the Tehama Formation and is sourced by the Coastal Range (Putah and Cache Creek drainage systems). Pumping too much from deep wells in Davis can hasten recharge by the more shallow aquifers that bear nitrates from agricultural fertilizer use. The deep wells can produce hexavalent chromium, boron and arsenic at toxic levels if overdrawn. These toxins occur naturally in the deep aquifers.

      1. hpierce

        A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…”Pumping too much from deep wells in Davis can hasten recharge by the more shallow aquifers that bear nitrates from agricultural fertilizer use.”  you obviously do not understand geomorpholgy or the concept of ‘aquitards’… [moderator] edited for language

        “The deep wells can produce hexavalent chromium, boron and arsenic at toxic levels if overdrawn.’

        Boron?  toxic to some plants, some fish, not to humans except in much higher levels (100 times magnitude of Davis water).  I call BS, unless you can cite otherwise.

        Hex- chromium?  Please document. That is not a naturally occurring pollutant.

        Arsenic?  Yes, this can  be a naturally occurring element… but not due to over-drafting… it is present in well water, surface water… toxic levels? Not.

        The excrement you spew is theoretically more harmful than any of the chemicals you cite.

        1. Don Shor

          Punching bore holes from more-saline intermediate aquifers into the less-saline deep aquifer risks mineralization of the deep water, such that it would then possibly violate water quality standards. The more holes, the more risk. The issue with boron had to do with water quality standards. This is all from the debate 2010-11 prior to the water project vote.

          The deep-well water is low enough in selenium to help us meet the state standards, which were the first regulatory concern at the time, unless they tighten them even more. But the deep wells also have water quality problems: that water is just as high in boron (higher than some of the current wells) and is also high in salinity and higher in arsenic. And it contains chromium, another constituent of concern. State regulations will very likely restrict arsenic, chromium, boron, and salinity in coming years.

          Chromium in the news: http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/new-chromium-6-limits-puts-davis-wells-in-deep-water/

      2. hpierce

        Don ( your 8:41 post)… I didn’t bring up selenium… you did… yes, selenium concentrations increased in Davis water in the late 70’s drought.  Yet, you can but selenium supplements [OTC] @ CVS or Rite-Aid that will easily exceed the selenium you’d consume in two years of drinking as much as you could in Davis water.

        You are also correct that boring new wells expose deeper formations to contamination from upper strata.  Unless they are properly sealed.  Hex 6 chromium, is not ‘natural’, as I understand it, but does show up due to “cross-contamination” of aquifers.

        But, I suspect you know this.

        1. tribeUSA

          The areal extent of aquitards varies considerably between different aquitards; and such aquitards may also be incised (think meandering ancient streams) or otherwise discontinuous (e.g. through faulting)  in some areas; such that their absolute continuity and sealing properties is not typically assured on a regional-scale (I don’t know the specifics for the greater Davis area and between Davis and the Coast Range). Also, the problem of short-circuiting across aquitard layers, particularly by old wells that may not have been abandoned properly, is nontrivial; lots of opportunities for cross-aquifer mixing.

  4. Sam

    A question that Don might be able to help me with: If you water an almond tree with a gallon of well water, what percentage of that water would make it all the way to the underground water supply?

    1. Don Shor

      Water that is applied can be recoverable or irrecoverable. From an article describing those outcomes:
      “… these are the fractions of applied irrigation water that flow off a field and result in no benefit to the crop or field (i.e., maintaining soil productivity). These fractions can include surface runoff, immediate evaporation during the irrigation event, or percolation below the active root zone of the field. These fractions may be recoverable for reuse (e.g., immediately as a surface runoff flow directed to another field or later as groundwater pumped from an aquifer) or irrecoverable (i.e., they become a depletion of water).”
      How much of the water runs off, percolates past the roots, evaporates, or gets used by the plants depends on how quickly it is applied, what the soil type and underlying geology is, and what the soil moisture status is at the time of application.
      So it would be very difficult to give an exact answer to your question.

      1. hpierce

        But, in general, unless the soil was already saturated, there were no heavy clay layers (known as aquitards), there were a lot of gravel soils, the answer is, pretty much, nothing.  The gravel formations that allow for ‘recharge’ are generally by creeks/streams, or where those formations “daylight”, generally near the foothills.  This is a generalization.

        1. DanH

          Davis soils can have a good deal of clay but our East Yolo groundwater region has medium drainage characteristics. Water from the shallow aquifers could begin to recharge the deep aquifer (700-1800′ below sea level) in as little as several decades from now. Davis and UCD deep wells are monitored to detect upper water incursion into the deep aquifer if it happens.

        2. DanH

          CDW-29 samplings at 696-1494′ are considered to be deep aquifer. See Phase II Deep Aquifer Study, July 2005 1.1.3:

          1.1.3. Project Goals
          The primary goals established at the beginning of the project were as follows:
          1. To study the Deep Aquifer (700 to 2000 feet deep) and related features of the Intermediate Aquifer
          2. Define separation/interconnection between the Intermediate and Deep Aquifers
          3. Determine likely sources of recharge/replacement water
          4. Determine the sustainability of the deep aquifer zone for future water supply needs
          5. Establish a coordinated monitoring plan for ongoing monitoring by the major study participants
          6. Provide material for the county-wide integrated plan and information for a regional model
          7. Join the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) water data library as a cooperator and provide data to the public and other interested parties.

          http://water.cityofdavis.org/Media/PublicWorks/Documents/PDF/PW/Water/Documents/Phase-II-Deep-Aquifer-Study.pdf

           

  5. Don Shor

    California droughts since 1900:

    1924

    1947-50

    1959-60

    1976-77

    1988-92

    (2007-09)

    2012-15

    Floods in California since 1900:

    1909

    1933-4

    1937-8-9

    1950

    1955

    1964

    1982

    1986

    1995

    1997

    1. hpierce

      Don… thanks again… I’m aware of a lot of those “extremes” (since ~ 1950, based on records I’ve seen), and take no exception to your info.  Looks pretty darn correct. [Based on Yolo county data]

  6. Adam Smith

    Here’s an article that provides a better view of how water is used by various California crops.     Number 1 – alfalfa, which provides forage for beef and dairy cows, and of course horses.    The animal derived food products, including milk, are huge consumers of water.  The article makes the point that rather than using neat soundbites like “1 gallon of water to make one almond”, we should be looking at how much nutritive value is derived from the 1 gallon of water.

     

    http://gizmodo.com/seriously-stop-demonizing-almonds-1696065939

  7. Clem Kadiddlehopper

     
    People are the number one crop in this state and we are bringing in more goo gobblers every day.
    I think we need to start reallocating water away from alfalfa, rice and almonds. If we don’t it could get really ugly.
     

    1. Davis Progressive

      so billion dollar economy be damned?  food be damned?  that’s probably going to cause as much of a strain on the state as the water, don’t you think?

  8. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    so billion dollar economy be damned?  food be damned?  that’s probably going to cause as much of a strain on the state as the water, don’t you think?

     

    We can always grow food in some other state. I am only suggesting  triage .
     
     

    1. Don Shor

      Interesting article. The water in that situation — Imperial Valley — is Colorado River water. As with the plumbing issues I was discussing with Frankly on another thread, there is no real way to get that water to go elsewhere in the state. If those farmers weren’t using it, I don’t think anyone else could get the rights to it. But if anyone had the will and the means to do that, it would be the MWD of Southern California.

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