Blaming Almonds


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of halfrain.

Over the past decade, almonds have slowly pushed peanuts out of the spotlight to become America’s most desired nut–or seed if we’re being technical.

Americans now consume more than two pounds of almonds per year, a fact that isn’t that surprising considering almonds’ reputation for being an appetite-curbing, protein-packed snack.

It isn’t just health nuts who have become fixated either. Macaron-lovers, herbivores, non-dairy drinkers, and diet-doers have all become obsessed with almonds’ nutritional value and linkage to improved heart health.

Up until very recently, there was very little to dislike about the powerful nut. That was until a startling statistic began circulating: to produce just one almond requires approximately one gallon of water.

The statistic only reads worse when put into context.

California is currently responsible for close to 82 percent of the world’s almond supply, with farmers planting 270,000 acres of new almond orchards in the last decade. California is also suffering from a severe drought, one that has been prevalent for 11 of the last 15 years.

While there’s no denying that global warming and the lack of snowfall is a direct and major cause of California’s water problem, many Americans have chosen another scapegoat: almonds, and their “out-of-control water consumption.”

A number of articles have been floating around asking the question: “should California really be growing almonds in the middle of a drought?”

This question is complex but is often presented simply, without inclusion of the myriad of other crops and practices that consume water at an equally alarming rate.

Take the meat industry for example. Two of the major components of feeding farm animals are forages (which include the fields that cows graze on) and alfalfa (one of the major crops used for animal food).

Despite California being one of the largest milk-producing states in the US, nobody seems to be citing the production and consumption at the same level that the media is with almonds.

Although almonds are not native to California, they grow very well in many agrarian areas of the state, in which the climate consists of sweltering summers and limited rainfall in the winter. Dairy production, on the other hand, can flourish in other places that are not as pressed for water.

This year, many famers got cut off from their imported surface water resources because of the limited supply. Much of what is taken from surface water resources must be reserved for senior water rights and to maintain normal and natural stream conditions for endangered species, like salmon.

These resources are not farmers’ only option though. Once federal and state agencies began limiting their water resource options, farmers began pumping groundwater.

Such intense pumping of the groundwater has resulted in land subsiding and further damaging the storage capacity of aquifers. The Delta-Mendota Canal, which is part of the Central Valley Project (California’s main hub in almond cultivation), was damaged to the point that it no longer delivers water at its previous and designed rate.

In early April, California State Governor Jerry Brown took into consideration the magnitude of the state’s drought and proposed that new water conservation guidelines to be implemented. Such measures go hand in hand with his request last September for urban water agencies to cut down their water usage by 25 percent, and include instituting $10,000 fines for agencies that didn’t comply.

The only thing that Brown’s groundwater law doesn’t take into account is the power almond farmers have acquired with the money gained from almonds’ booming economy.

Governor Brown’s law does not take away the fact that farmers can buy water through senior water rights holders elsewhere, or simply drill a deeper well.

Although California almond farmers are living right in the heart of the distressing situation, guaranteed profits keep them planting new orchards despite the fact they are depleting the state’s valuable water resources.

At this point, what can be deduced with certainty is that a major upheaval needs to take place for all industries that use water. While it’s tempting to choose a scapegoat and tout troubling statistics to make a point, time would arguably be better spent distributing the water supply in the most efficient way possible.