Drought and the Almond
A Race to the Bottom of California's Aquifers
Notwithstanding an unlikely series of deluges, it is clear that California is heading into a fourth year of drought. And even if the next couple of months are wet enough float an ark, it won’t solve our water woes. As we get closer to spring, any precipitation we receive in the higher elevations will likely fall as rain, not snow. That makes it harder to store water in our reservoirs. In intense rainfall situations, reservoirs often must be used as flood-control systems, not storage facilities; much of the water must be shunted rapidly through rivers, canals, and bypasses to avoid catastrophic flooding. Only melting snow provides the relatively slow release of water needed to fill our reservoirs reliably and safely.
Further, we’ve already pillaging our “water IRA” — groundwater. Historically, both farms and cities have relied on the state’s aquifers to pull them through dry spells. That option is closing. Pumping over the past year has been so fast and furious that many of the state’s groundwater basins are in steep decline.
Between 2002 and 2010, the aquifers of the Central Valley (the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys combined) were drained of 20 cubic kilometers of groundwater. The situation is especially dire in the agricultural lands of the San Joaquin Valley, where land has subsided in some places by almost 30 feet due to groundwater overdraft. In many cases, the negative impacts to our aquifers are long-term. As aquifers collapse, they lose much of their water-retaining capacity. Even if precipitation once again becomes abundant, the holding capacity of some overdrafted aquifers — permanently impaired — may be less than before.
Clearly, we are in a crisis. Many cities have mandated water rationing, and these strictures will only increase as water availability tightens. We could reasonably expect a similar response from the agribusiness sector. But this is California, where corporate agriculture is king. Rather than conserving water, corporate farmers have moved in the opposite direction; specifically, they are planting vast new almond orchards throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
Almonds are among the most profitable of crops. Demand for them has soared exponentially over the past decade. Not all of that consumption is domestic; fully 70 percent of the state’s almonds are sold for export. As Tom Philpott noted in an excellent article on California almond production that ran in a recent issue of Mother Jones magazine, it takes a full gallon of water to produce a single almond; further, more water is required to yield four almonds than an entire head of lettuce. Between the summer of 2013 and the summer of 2014, when the state was deep in the throes of the current drought, growers planted 48,000 acres of new almond orchards.
So while urban ratepayers across the state must endure severe cutbacks in water consumption, San Joaquin Valley corporate farmers are planting new almond orchards at breakneck speed. Moreover, they are wholly unapologetic, maintaining they have first rights to both California’s groundwater and surface water, and they’ll use it as they see fit. In other words: Ratepayers be damned.
When it comes to surface water, the law is against them. San Joaquin Valley growers actually are among the most junior of the state’s water rights claimants. They are hoping their power in Sacramento and Washington will trump their flimsy legitimacy claims. They take the water, frankly, because they can.
And groundwater? Currently, landowners can drill and pump wherever they wish, with the exception of some basins that have been adjudicated. Recently passed state legislation provides for enhanced regulation, but it will be minimal, and will require years for full implementation. So as it stands, it’s literally a race to the bottom — of our aquifers.
Clearly, we can’t allow the narrow interests of a handful of corporate almond growers to turn California into a dust bowl. Agribusiness refuses to acknowledge that its long-term interests are undermined by short-term greed. Moreover, the arrant seizure of California’s most precious public resource threatens us all. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s developed water, but it produces only 2 percent of its gross domestic product. We — that is to say, our cities, our high-tech industries, our fisheries, our rivers and estuaries — need the water that is now squandered to produce windfall profits for a handful of corporate almond producers … exporting our precious water in their almond profits.
We have reached a tipping point in state water policy. We can never go back; we can only move forward. Our future must include conservation, recycling, development of local sources, and limited desalinization projects. We must also revisit groundwater regulation and draft effective programs that can be implemented in the short-term. But first, we must take our water back from the few, the powerful and the politically influential: the agribusiness barons of the San Joaquin. California’s water belongs to all Californians. By law and moral right, it is ours, and we must reclaim it.