Almonds are by far my favorite nut. And I'm in luck because the vast majority of the world's almonds are grown here in California's San Joaquin Valley. However, as farmers in the Central Valley struggle to procure the necessary water for their crops, almond farmers and other perennial crop (i.e. citrus, and other fruit/nut trees) growers are the some of the most vulnerable to the current drought. This is because unlike annual crops (i.e. tomatoes, alfalfa, and cotton) that can be fallowed to wait out the dry times, fruit & nut trees cannot.
Some environmentalists have little sympathy for almond farmers, since they have chosen to grow water intensive perennial crops that cannot be fallowed inside the desert-like natural conditions in the Central Valley. With the groundwater underneath the San Joaquin too high in salts to irrigate with, farmers are faced with the stark reality that they might have to rip out their trees. Highly dependent upon surface water allocations from imported water flowing along the state's major rivers and water arteries (Central Valley Project and State Water Project), the cost of water can be as high as $2500 per acre-foot! With the cost of production of one acre of almonds at $3,897 (includes cultural costs, harvest, cash overhead, equipment, land, and trees), the expected return is $2,340- $2940 per acre (with an estimated yield range of 1400- 2600 pounds per acre and a price range of 0.9 to $2.10). Despite the lack of water, farmers say the Central Valley has great soil conditions for growing almonds and very much in favor of its global exporting capability. But many are faced with downsizing their acreage, ripping out their trees, and facing the economic hit.
California's already scarce water resources will be placed under additional pressure, as we face the reality that droughts are likely to return due to climate change. Increasing demands on water for the environment are higher than ever before due to state regulations in the Delta, meeting the needs of 38 million people (the highest populated state in the US!), and for the agricultural water needs for the 250 crops grown across our diverse landscape. Despite the fact that Agriculture in California only contributes to 2% of our GDP and 4% of jobs, the Department of Water Resources in California estimates that 80% (34 million acre-feet) of our state water resources (both surface and groundwater) are currently being used to irrigate our crops every year. That's more water than 7 Lake Shasta's - California's largest surface water reservoir - could hold at full capacity!
Certainly there is a need to use increase water use efficiency, but many farmers have already adopted water saving technologies such as drip irrigation that increase the crop per drop. So what else can we do to drought proof ourselves? We can't. But - there are things we can reduce our vulnerability to droughts. This means being proactive versus reactive in our water management strategies.
One of the major difficulties in managing water, especially groundwater - our largest water reservoir, in California is that it's not being measured. And when it is, there is very little transparency. In drought years, groundwater is a form of insurance for farmers. Farmers are paying between $50,000 to $500,000 to drill a well depending on the depth and the geological material to access the unregulated natural underground water reservoirs. But as groundwater levels continue to decline, it is in everyone's interest to ensure that we are managing it well.
One thing that is yet to be considered is strategic crop planning. The government of Australia is facilitating strategic crop planning under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009, which promotes shared values between the state and local communities. Basically, what it does is ensure that there are sufficient resources to support a type of crop and that it does not compete with other local needs. In a place like California, where there is such a diversity of crops and landscapes, a local strategic crop planning program could help farmers quantify their water needs prior to choosing a crop and then devising an action plan for how to procure that water under future scenarios. Similar to how zoning laws work in municipalities to decide where a community wants to place commercial buildings versus residential housing, a strategic crop planning program could likewise help communities decide how they collectively want to use their water resources. But more importantly help prepare farmers to evaluate how their agricultural decisions will fare, so that they don't have to depend on the government in drought years. Like almond trees, communities also have their roots set in place, and its important that they don't dry up.