california water wars,    Environment,    on the public record blog,    Water Wars

Two Little-Known Fun Facts About California's Agricultural Water Use (or, We're Using MORE Water?)

Posted by Tom Chandler 4/21/2014

California's drought continues, and tracking all the stories about it would overflow even a blog dedicated to the stuff. Inexplicably, few of the stories focus on the plight of the poor small stream fly fisherman and the privations he'll suffer during the drought, but the New York Times does cover two fairly appalling trends in the California water landscape.

First, investors -- with little real connection to the land -- are buying up Central Valley farmland. And second, growers are planting far more water-intensive crops than before:

Several insurance and pension funds have snapped up land in the Central and Pajaro Valleys and replaced traditional crops like spinach, melons and asparagus with ones requiring more water, like avocados, nuts and berries, which command premium prices thanks to soaring demand from baby boomers and the international market. The region produces twice as many almonds, roughly two billion pounds, as it did in 2006.

The boom in nut trees, water managers in the valleys say, has strained the state’s water resources even further. Brian Lockwood, senior hydrologist at the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, pointed to the strawberry fields that have largely displaced the apple orchards that used to be major producers in the Pajaro Valley.

"Apples need about a half acre-foot of water per acre, whereas strawberries take two or more acre-feet," Mr. Lockwood said. "You can’t blame growers for seeking better-paying crops, but it has quadrupled water use per acre."

To get a sense of what kind of numbers we're talking about, here are the percentage increases (2003-2012) of water-intensive crops (credited to the California Department of Food && Agriculture):

  • Strawberries (+30%)

  • Almonds (+44%)

  • Raspberries (+80%)

  • Pistachios (+102%)


In other words, all those acres that have been fallowed by the drought (recent estimates say as much as 800,000, or 7% of California's cropland) might not have been fallowed if the field across the road had been planted with spinach instead of strawberries or almonds.

I'm sympathetic to the growers. Droughts are hard, and because salmon and other natives are slowly going extinct, the growers have less water to begin with. It's a hard place.

Yet planting more water-intensive crops seems like a pretty poor response to an ongoing water crisis -- one that has generated a lot of cries for government aid which are being answered to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. (And exactly who's going to pay for all the damage caused by overpumping groundwater?)

We clearly don't have the water to increase our need for it among growers, and I'm not at all amenable to waving good-bye to native fish in order to make a tasty snack treat for an overseas market (the vast majority of almonds grown in the state are shipped overseas).

Next time someone attempts to reduce California's water wars to something ludicrous like "why are you favoring fish over people," ask them why they're hugging almonds instead of the farmer down the road. And then maybe we can all get down to discussing the real issues.

See you taking a very short shower so trout in the Upper Sac can breathe a little easier, Tom Chandler.

AuthorPicture

Tom Chandler

As the author of the decade leading fly fishing blog Trout Underground, Tom believes that fishing is not about measuring the experience but instead of about having fun. As a staunch environmentalist, he brings to the Yobi Community thought leadership on environmental and access issues facing us today.

I work in the central valley, Fresno. Friends are almond farmers. Whole orchards of full grown producing trees are being pushed over for lack of water. They will not survive one summer with little or no water because their root system is extremely shallow. Hard choices are being made. I think it is the implementation of the policy decisions that is being screwed up. Their is no sense of fair play ... more or concern for the farmer. One does not feel as if anyone who matters is sticking up for the guy who puts food on all of our tables. Even if the environmentalists are, which on an individual bases they want those good foods for their families, their is no sense of that concern getting out. Yet the farmer would like to fish for and eat Salmon in years to come. To do so they need to bear up in these times and show they care.
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but the Sacramento is bank full. They are still moving a ton of water out of Shasta and your region even now Well, they have to make room in Lake Shasta for all the winter runo.... hey wait...
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paul worsterberg of the deplacements: the article failed to mention all the dingleberries. This comment works on many levels. Many.
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All of Yolo county is converting to almonds and walnuts, even the tomatoes and corn are being jettisoned in favor of nuts. The water in the lakes and streams down here is about half capacity, but the Sacramento is bank full. They are still moving a ton of water out of Shasta and your region even now ...
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the article failed to mention all the dingleberries.
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[…] Two Little-Known Fun Facts About California’s Agricultural Water Use (or, We’re Using MORE Water?): The Trout Underground blog writes: “California’s drought continues, and tracking all the stories about it would overflow even a blog dedicated to the stuff. Inexplicably, few of the stories focus on the plight of the poor small stream fly fisherman and the privations he’ll suffer during ... more the drought, but the New York Times does cover two fairly appalling trends in the California water landscape. First, investors — with little real connection to the land — are buying up Central Valley farmland. And second, growers are planting far more water-intensive crops than before … “ Read more from the Trout Underground here: Two Little-Known Fun Facts About California’s Agricultural Water Use (or, We’re Using MORE Water… […]
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I think nearly 80% of the world's almonds are grown here, most of which are exported. A pretty startling percentage of strawberries too, and they both require a lot of water. The money's good, but the water demands (per acre) are much higher. In one sense, the increase in the planting of crops like these explain the record amount of water pumped from the Delta the five years prior to the collapse ... more of the salmon in 2007.Planting them now -- in the face of several years of drought and repeated cries for more taxpayer money -- defies common sense.
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So you mean to tell me that pistachios really aren't that wonderful!?! In all seriousness though hopefully it will ease up for you guys sooner or later, we here in Kansas can relate.
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