Water & Drought

Big money, increasing acreage make almond latest water war villain

Madera farmer Denis Prosperi examines the almond crop at his ranch. Prosperi says it doesn’t tell the whole story to say it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. He says the unused parts of the almond are used as cow feed. Without that, an additional 2 million tons of alfalfa — another big water user — would have to be grown to make up for the lost almond hulls and shells.
Madera farmer Denis Prosperi examines the almond crop at his ranch. Prosperi says it doesn’t tell the whole story to say it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. He says the unused parts of the almond are used as cow feed. Without that, an additional 2 million tons of alfalfa — another big water user — would have to be grown to make up for the lost almond hulls and shells. Fresno Bee file photo

Every political cause needs a villain, and for many environmental activists who have weighed in on the state’s current water woes, that bad guy is the almond.

It could just as easily have been eggs. Or oranges. Or beef.

In the future, it just might be.

Almonds, it seems, are a victim of circumstance.

They’re popular. They’re profitable. They come from trees that need water year round to stay alive. There’s a drought of epic proportions.

All-in-all, it’s proven a tough nut for the popular food, which has been singled out in these dry times as a major water guzzler.

“They have become the poster child for agricultural water use,” says Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association.

The facts, however, show there are far bigger water scofflaws than almond trees.

It takes 3.5 gallons of water to produce a head of lettuce, 50 gallons to produce a single egg, 500 gallons for a pound of chicken and 675 gallons for a six-ounce filet steak.

Outside of agriculture, it takes 10 gallons of water to manufacture a single computer chip, a product that more than any other is identified with the economy of the Bay Area, home to many of the people who are disparaging the almond. Another water hog, it appears, will be Tesla’s battery plant now under construction near Reno. Tesla builds its cars in Fremont, a Bay Area city.

Still, as the drought rages and residents are facing unprecedented water restrictions, there’s no talk of eggs or lettuce or chicken or computer chips being the bad guy. Instead, it is the almond. Its water usage? 1.1 gallons per almond.

The whole debate is ridiculous, says Madera County farmer Denis Prosperi, who has 380 acres of almond orchards in the central San Joaquin Valley. He cites the state Water Resources Control Board’s recent regulation, which included a requirement that restaurants not serve water unless patrons request it. But beer and soda, two popular restaurant drinks, take more water to produce than simply serving water, he says.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, says he’s wary of all the water analogies. If a rancher is raising cattle and cattle feed in a dry area that requires irrigation, the water usage would be greater than in a place like Montana that has more rainfall all the time and would not be such an egregious water user. The semi-arid San Joaquin Valley, he says, is the heart of worldwide almond production.

And C. Robert Helms, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who has worked in and written about semiconductors, says the industry has become more efficient the past few decades in its water usage. He cited Intel’s facility in Chandler, Arizona. It treats the water it uses and in turn supplies it to Chandler. He also says water is reused in chip manufacturing.

“People have to be careful about this,” Grader says of making comparisons such as almonds to chicken breasts. It’s not always apples to apples, he says.

That’s fine, Bedwell says. He says it’s hard for the agriculture industry to win a numbers game. And, he adds: “We do have a responsibility to show we are efficient.”

Almonds will be water efficient, Bedwell says. The market will see to that. Farmers plant something that brings a reasonable expectation of a profit, but with water becoming more expensive, some of those profits will have to go toward more water-efficient technologies.

Rise of the almond

When Bedwell was fresh out of college four decades ago, west-side farmers were only planting row crops because of uncertain water supplies. Then water became so expensive it necessitated the change to higher value permanent crops, he says. A few decades ago, farmers hit on almonds, which have exploded in popularity worldwide. They happen to grow better on the Valley’s west side than anywhere else in the world. Bedwell asks: Why are almond growers the bad guys for trying to make a profit?

It’s an $11 billion annual industry that brings good profits to growers.

In 1999, California’s almond acreage was around 585,000 acres. By 2004, it was 620,000 acres and 825,000 acres in 2010. Last year, it topped 1 million acres for the first time, and the increase was 5% over 2013, according to a survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“It’s hard to go under the radar with the number of acres being planted,” says Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Much of that explosion in planted acreage has sprung up on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side, sometimes replacing row crops. Almonds are trees that must be watered year round, while row crops could be fallowed if needed.

1.1 gallons of water to produce an almond

3.5 gallons of water to produce a head of lettuce

50 gallons of water to produce an egg

500 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken

675 gallons to produce a six-ounce filet steak

Environmental activists notice this, especially if they are on Interstate 5, the Valley’s west-side thoroughfare that connects Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

California also produces 83% of the world’s almond supply, which means a lot of the crop is exported. As the state struggles through a drought of epic proportions, it’s an easy potshot to say exporting almonds is like exporting the state’s water.

Pinpointing just when almonds got into the activist crosshairs isn’t easy.

Some feel it was the simple eyeball test. Driving the Valley’s west side, it was easy to see the explosion of almonds. For agriculture-challenged drivers, often the crops are identified by signs facing out to I-5.

Jacobsen thinks it may have started there, but “social media fed this animal.” He saw it popping up several months ago, and as with so many things that go viral, many so-called urban myths crept into the conversation. As the mainstream media picked up on the debate, Jacobsen says, some “misperceptions” about almonds were exposed. Still, the almond as bad guy was established.

This irks Prosperi. As one example (of many), he says almond growers create 2 million tons of hull and shell annually for cow feed. Without that, an additional two million tons of alfalfa — another big water user — would have to be grown to make up for the lost almond hulls and shells.

Seeking a bad guy

If it wasn’t almonds, though, it would be another crop, says Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an Exeter-based citrus growers lobby.

It’s just part of the long-term goal to return the Valley’s west side to its pre-farming state, Nelsen says.

“The environmental community has always challenged farming on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley,” he says. “The almonds are a symbol.”

Then again, so is a guy like Stewart Resnick.

He lives in Beverly Hills. He’s a billionaire. He makes lots of money in agribusiness. His Paramount Farms grows almonds.

In terms of PR value, Resnick is as easy a target as almonds.

“Frankly, some of the growers have not been the most sympathetic people,” says Grader, singling out Resnick. And Grader says he’s not an almond hater. He loves sliced almonds on his salmon, he says.

But Resnick’s farming empire extends beyond almonds. It also grows pistachios, oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes and, of course, mandarins. Anyone who has bought Halos mandarins has contributed to Paramount’s —and thus Resnick’s — bottom line.

All the citrus crops are grown in trees. They are permanent crops that require water year round to stay alive. But they aren’t talked of much in the great agriculture water-use debate.

Maybe it’s because the Valley’s citrus crop was established 100 years ago. Maybe it’s because the trees are exclusively on the Valley’s east side, which saw the rise of agriculture far earlier than the more parched west side.

Eventually, almonds will run their course, Bedwell says. He recalls the white wine boom, and the feeling that farmers would never be able to plant enough wine grapes. In less than five years, wine grapes were no longer a hot commodity.

“Markets will adjust, believe me,” Bedwell says. “Eventually, we will overplant these nut crops, prices will fall, and people will not be making money. Give it enough time, it will change.”

When — and if — that day comes, the almond as bad guy may be forgotten. Already, a new villain is starting to make its presence known.

Meet bottled water, the next bad guy in the state’s water wars.

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