Governor Brown’s Water Plan: Just Plain Nuts

Over the weekend California Governor Jerry Brown went on ABC News’ “This Week” program to defend his recently announced 25 percent cut to water usage across the state.

Reading recent articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, one might think the main issue is that Californians like their pretty lawns and shiny cars and don’t care about one another or the environment.

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But lawns and car washes are not the real water issue facing California.  Nor are the supposedly extra long showers that Brown suggested city dwellers take. In fact, human consumption of water in the state constitutes just 20% of water used. The rest is used for agriculture. And yet Brown’s cuts ask nothing of the agricultural industry.

When questioned about this, Brown explained that farms are “providing most of the fruit and vegetables of America”, as well as jobs for the state’s poorest members, who find themselves out of work and suffering.

Obviously, providing jobs for poor migrants is a good thing. And growing fruit and vegetables for the country is important; California is in fact responsible for 35 percent of the United States’ vegetables, and two-thirds of our fruit and nuts. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that agriculture contributes just 2 percent to the state’s gross domestic product.)

But what Brown fails to mention is that his protection extends to unnecessary crops which require startling amounts of water. In fact, ten percent of all water used in the entire state is dedicated to almond growing.

That's right: During the worst recorded drought in the state’s history, a full ten percent of our water is being used to grow a snack food.  

That’s roughly the same amount of water used by all of the urban areas of California combined. The water needed each year for this salad and dessert topping is in fact three times that used by the entire city of Los Angeles. 

Nut crops also take years to produce a yield. At a time when water is such an issue, you might think this would put farmers off from switching to such crops. But according to Bloomberg Business, in fact California farmers have turned to water-hungry nut crops more since the drought began. The reason is simple: they make more money. As Bloomberg reported over the summer, demand for nuts has grown in Asia, while other California mainstays like cotton and corn have shown decreasing profit margins due to higher water prices and increased competition.

And what allows such choices to go forward? A complete lack of state intervention. Until September the state had no law requiring local communities to regulate their groundwater (that is, their underground aquifers, which constitute one third of the water supply of the state). Farmers can legally pump out as much water as they want—even if it affects water supply on other farms—or to sell their water to other farms, an estimated 60 billion dollar industry. Even with the new law, local communities will not be required to achieve sustainability for 25 years.

In October the Los Angeles Times likewise reported on central California’s massive Westlands Water District, where politically connected, wealthy farmers are fighting to continue to be provided with cheap water for their farms, despite their land having inadequate drainage and contaminants that ends up wasting water. (They, too, have a lot of nut crops. Of course.) The Times found “In all of California, there may be no worse place to practice the kind of industrial-scale irrigated agriculture that Westlands is famous for than the badly drained, salt-laden lands that make up roughly half the district.”

In the fall Dr. Joseph Reichenberger, professor of civil engineering at Loyola Marymount University and one of the directors of the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, put the issue to me very simply: “Because water [for agriculture] is cheap, they have no incentive to maximize efficiency.” 

None of this is to say that the residents of California should not be asked to look at their personal water consumption. Los Angeles is in fact the fourth lowest per capita water user in the entire country. Still, its manicured lawns are both unnecessary and a too easy distraction from the most serious issues facing the state.

And Governor Brown's concern for the poor is laudable. Would that more governors expressed such a concern so clearly, and for all their residents, regardless of their race or immigration status.

Still, if he does find a way to move beyond easy targets and media-friendly spin to face the mismanagement and sheer greed being perpetrated elsewhere, soon enough he may very well find just how hard it is to squeeze water from a rock.

And unfortunately, whether we're showering for two minutes or ten, so will the rest of us.  

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Martin Eble
3 years 4 months ago
Writing off California’s almonds as a “snack food” echoes the Mother Jones anti-almond campaign (“Watch Almonds Suck California Dry”, “California's Almonds Suck as Much Water Annually as Los Angeles Uses in Three Years”, “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!”, etc.) but the facts seem to support Governor Brown’s take on almonds and the California economy. While the almond is often eaten on its own, raw or toasted, it is also a component of various dishes and products. Almonds are the basis of a gluten-free flour. Almond oil is made into almond butter or almond milk for the lactose intolerant. Almond oil is also an important industrial product, particularly for the fine furniture industry. The United States produces 82% of the world’s almonds, of which 99+% are grown in California. Over 70% of California's almonds are sold overseas, making it the Number One California agricultural export ($2.5 billion in 2012). That is 2 1/2 times more than wine, California’s second most important agricultural export. Unfortunately if the almond trees are deprived of water and die, it will take years, perhaps decades, to restore this important contribution to California’s economy, if restoration is possible. Certainly, longer range, California needs to take a good hard look at its sources and uses of water. One possible solution would be to subsidize Californians’ relocation to other states which lack the pollution, water shortages, earthquakes risks, and other risks endemic to an overpopulated state sitting on a major fault line. However, to suggest that the state put both feet on the brakes and push them to the floor on this single crop because almonds are “a snack food” is just plain nuts.
Vince Killoran
3 years 4 months ago
Martin Eble is correct: almonds are an important source of nutrition, especially for vegetarians. And speaking of vegetarians. . . the state's mega diary industry could come under closer scrutiny. Ditto for the meat industry everywhere.
Larry Weisenthal
3 years 4 months ago
I have no conflicts of interest beyond being a human needing water to live. I like almonds as much a the next person, but using three times the entire water use of LA and SF combined to grow almonds to export to Asia is unsustainable -- impassioned pro-almond arguments notwithstanding.
Martin Eble
3 years 4 months ago
"Let them eat walnuts." Kissing the largest agricultural export of California, and all the attendant jobs, off in one fell and irreversible swoop so that people in LA and SF can continue to use their swimming pools and take 15 minute showers may not represent the wisest course for a government whose purpose under the natural law is the welfare of ALL its population, even those who hate almonds.
William Atkinson
3 years 4 months ago
So we just had a little rainstorm in California, as usual some of us went to see the drainage ditches, runoff canals, storm systems: Guess what so much water running off to the ocean, AMAZING. And the LA, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange county Swift Water Rescue teams did emergency rescues to save people, cars, animals caught up in these waters as they flowed out to sea. Some how, some way, some one should do better water management in these areas. So much of the state depends on reservoirs and Colorado River that they have neglected to manage the water they have. My cousin in Sacramento area say's the same there, drainage canals are full, just wasting the water to the sea. By the way the coastal folks are complaining about the high seas eroding and destroying the sea side homes.

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