Stop Vilifying Almonds

Yes, they use up a lot of water in drought-afflicted California. But the story gets a lot more complicated from there.

Ripening almonds at an almond farm.
In California, water-intensive almonds have become an easily vilified, easily visualized scapegoat.

Photo by Dolores Giraldez Alonso/Shutterstock

This year’s “rainy” season is over, and California is beginning to accept its fate: Business-as-usual farming in the Golden State may soon become a thing of the past. The drought is now so far beyond the bounds of normal it’s become at least temporarily self-sustaining. Extreme heat begets more evaporation, and dry ground heats up more quickly than wet soil. Add in a dash of global warming, and you have a recipe for a megadrought that may last decades. For a state whose decades-long water-fueled bender has made it the most important agricultural producer in the country, one that leads the nation in countless water-intensive food crops, that’s all pretty terrifying.

It also explains the heated debate we’ve been having recently over, of all things, almonds—or “THE DEVIL’S NUT,” as Gizmodo facetiously called them recently. Amid the massive new water restrictions now in place in California, water-intensive almonds have become an easily vilified, easily visualized scapegoat.

It’s true that California has to get smarter—fast—about using what little water it has left. But we should recognize that the state has other, much sillier uses of water than almonds—like depleting California’s desert aquifers to grow hay and corn to fatten cows. (Nebraska already does a pretty good job at that.) I’m by no means an almond apologist, but all this recent almond-shaming demands some context. And, in fact, there’s a strong case that it makes great sense for almonds to remain central to the future of California agriculture.

For now, California’s unique Mediterranean climate is almost ideal for almonds to flourish. Yes, almonds use a lot of water, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Almonds are much more efficient water-users, per calorie, than dairy or beef, for example. (As a Wisconsin resident, I feel duty-bound to remind everyone at this point that dairy farming can be done almost anywhere—and indeed, dairies in search of more reliable water are leaving California because of the current drought.) Replacing a glass of cow’s milk with almond milk is a net gain for the environment. But almond trees, which must be watered even when they’re not producing, have been gradually displacing fields of row crops that can be fallowed when the weather turns dry. That means by planting almonds, farmers are locking in future water use for decades to come—a troubling trend.

Mother Jones has owned the almond beat for more than a year now. The magazine has helped us learn that it takes about a gallon of water to grow a single almond, and the state’s expanding class of almond tycoons are increasingly eager to use almonds to convert the state’s dwindling water supplies to cash. Almonds use about as much water each year as the entire city of Los Angeles does in three, and about two-thirds of those nuts are exported. As long as the world wants almonds, California will be happy to oblige—that fact is increasingly clear.

Last year at this time, I was in the midst of a 12-part series on water issues in the West. One statistic I calculated during that time has since gone viral: Almonds use 10 percent of California’s agricultural water supply.

Hoping to update that statistic, I recently got in touch with the Almond Board of California—a voice for the industry (its Twitter handle is @almonds). The group agreed that the statistic was essentially correct—though it stressed that the range is probably somewhere between 8 and 11 percent, depending on how much rain and snow fall in a given year. We put our heads together to come up with an updated version of my calculation, with numbers specific to this winter.

First, some background. California’s agricultural water supply can be broken into three major sources: snowpack, reservoirs, and groundwater, which provide roughly equal amounts of water in a normal year. In drought years like this one, farmers rely more intensely on groundwater to make up for what didn’t fall from the sky—meaning aquifers are being drained even more quickly.

Here’s the amount of water California’s agricultural sector has to work with this year, calculated in million acre-feet, one of which equals 325,000,000,000 gallons, 1,200 Empire State Buildings full of water: The snowpack is at record lows, just 5 percent of normal (0.75 MAF, 14.25 MAF less than normal). Reservoirs are doing a bit better, at about two-thirds of normal (13.2 MAF, 6.8 MAF less than normal). Groundwater has made up some of the difference, and is being pumped at a rate about 34 percent above normal (19.8 MAF, 5.1 MAF more than normal). That means the total agricultural water supply this year is 33.75 MAF.

Of the 33.75 million acre-feet of water available to agriculture in 2015 (enough water to supply the entire San Francisco Bay area for more than 30 years), almonds are on track to use 3.6 million acre-feet, or 11 percent.

The California almond industry has doubled its acreage since 2005. But whether almonds are the best use of a dwindling supply, factoring in climate change projections, is a different question. These are trees, remember, which have a productive lifespan of 20 to 25 years. They’re going to be there until it’s not economical for them to be there anymore.

Over the last few decades, there’s been a shift from low value (cotton, rice) to high value (almonds, pistachios) agriculture in California as the effective cost of water has increased. (Though water typically isn’t metered, it’s become extremely expensive to dig deeper wells.) In a real sense, the almond industry is the future of California agriculture—high value, high efficiency, but still high consuming. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it makes most sense to use a scarce resource for the highest value application possible.

The problem is that, thanks to the current drought, the water supply is going away faster than expected. The almond industry is an indicator of how difficult it might be to adapt to climate change, economically and environmentally.

What we’re witnessing in California right now is a glimpse into the future. California has now endured drought in 11 of the last 15 years, and there’s every reason to believe this is just the beginning.

There’s a lot of debate over which atmospheric forces kicked off this particular round, but there’s little doubt that climate change has made things worse. A very warm winter pushed the state’s snowpack to a shocking new low, prompting the first-ever mandatory statewide water restrictions earlier this month. But as has been much-reported, those new rules didn’t do much to stem water usage in the state’s massive agricultural sector, which currently uses about 80 percent of California’s water supply.

Here’s a shocking statistic that doesn’t get enough attention: nearly one-half of California’s farms still use “flood irrigation,” a 7,000-year-old technique for watering crops. That technique is exactly what it sounds like: diverting canals to flood their fields. While that may have worked well in prehistoric Mesopotamia, irrigation technology has come a long way since then.

A joint study last summer by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Oakland-based Pacific Institute found that by instituting basic modern-era water-saving technologies, like wastewater recycling, stormwater capture, drip irrigation and replacement of urban lawns with native landscaping, the state could save enough water to reverse its dramatic groundwater decline with loads of water left over.* The problem is, the state’s antiquated system of water rights isn’t giving the most wasteful farmers any incentive to change their ways.

When you remember that all agriculture, despite using 80 percent of the state’s water, produces only about 2 percent of the state’s GDP, it’s easy to make the case that urban water use is much more economically efficient. But then again, we have to eat, right?

The main questions everyone’s asking, I think, are: Do I have to give up almonds? Is almond farming compatible with climate change?

We can imagine a water-constrained future in which groundwater pumping is enforced (no extra pumping in drought years is allowed, as it is now) and a near-zero snowpack becomes the norm. That would probably result in a permanent loss of about one-third to one-half of California’s water.

While cities, industry, and the rest of agriculture have become more efficient in their water use, total water use for almonds has expanded rapidly over the last decade or so as almond acreage in California doubled. Almonds, too, are using water more wisely—but their explosive growth has dwarfed efficiency gains. On the other hand, total acreage for hay, including alfalfa—California’s No. 1 agricultural water user—is on a steady decline as fields become more productive and dairy farmers bid up the price in drought years. That long-term trend of fallowing low-value crops (like hay and rice) is leaving more vacant ground for (you guessed it) more almonds.

California is expecting 11 million more people in the next 20 years—though at current rates of increasing efficiency, we can expect cities to use about the same amount of water in 2035 as now. At the same time, temperature and precipitation trends point toward an intensification of drought risk for the forseeable future. It’s clear California will need to do more with less, but that burden will fall almost entirely on agriculture.

Correction, April 20, 2015: This article originally misidentified the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Resourced Defense Council. (Retrun.)