Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Celebrate almonds, while recognizing water issues

Almonds are a great California success story.

California’s 6,000 almond growers produce about 80 percent of the world’s almonds and all of the almonds sold in the United States. Sacramento’s own Blue Diamond Growers, the world’s largest almond handler, is expanding, as Sacramento Bee reporter Mark Glover detailed on Wednesday.

California almonds hit an all-time record of 870,000 acres in 2012, up from 411,000 in 1989.

Almonds are California’s largest food-crop export, far surpassing dairy products and wine.

The export markets for almonds in China and India and South Korea, since the signing of a trade agreement, are booming.

Up and down the Central Valley, dairies, fruit orchards, crop fields and cattle ranches are being converted to almond orchards. The Modesto Bee reported in July that about 1 in 6 acres of Stanislaus County land now is growing almonds, and more orchards are planned.

But the party, alas, may not last, despite world demand.

Water is a limiting factor.

Unlike row crops that can lay fallow during dry years, almond trees have to be watered or they die.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Nov. 4 water year report is daunting: “January through May 2013 were California’s driest in about 90 years of recordkeeping” which has “resulted in minimal reservoir inflows when needed most, low water allocations for Central Valley Project contractors, challenges managing Delta salinity and early increases in reservoir releases.” On top of that, the National Weather Service’s Season Drought Project indicates “persistent drought conditions for the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada for the next 90 days.”

Water supplies will be a serious challenge.

Bruce Lampinen, an almond expert at UC Davis, told The Bee’s editorial board that so far during periods of water shortage, growers have mostly been able to buy water that has come mostly from taking annual field crops such as tomatoes, lettuce and melons out of production.

However, he also points out that with more severe shortages, “some Southern San Joaquin Valley growers will likely have to resort to well water, which is often saline, and since almonds are quite sensitive to salinity, this will likely impact production.”

Groundwater problems already are happening. The Modesto Bee reports that “so many farmers have started pumping that wells in some Stanislaus regions are going dry.” Another Modesto Bee story on Friday pointed out that parts of Merced County are sinking, and that so much groundwater is being pumped from the San Joaquin Valley that ground levels are sinking at a rate of nearly a foot a year. California is one of the last states in the nation not to regulate groundwater. That has to change. The 2009 legislation to monitor groundwater needs to go further, giving authority to limit pumping.

The switch from annual crops to permanent almond orchards is likely to continue since almond prices are currently quite high.

Ironically, as Grist reported in 2011, the “move toward higher-value permanent crops has created an inflexible, ‘hardened’ demand for water by erasing many farmers’ ability to roll with nature’s hydrologic punches.”

The annual Almond Conference that takes place Dec. 3-5 at the Sacramento Convention Center should be a humdinger. A celebration and a hard “reality sandwich,” as Gov. Jerry Brown might put it.