A recent article in the New York Times gave me cause for concern about farmers - those who grow almonds in particular - being targeted in this drought.
The article struck a negative tone towards farmers in California, claiming that they use 80 percent of the water in the state while only accounting for two percent of the state's economy.
That's their figures anyway. They are entitled to be wrong but it's irresponsible.
Then the Times writer goes on to point out that Gov. Brown is going easy on farmers as far as watering restrictions are concerned, as if farmers are causing doom to California. Never mind the fact that they are feeding the nation and world.
There's a lot of misinformation going on in the United States, which is paying attention to the water woes of the state and Central Valley as the drought goes on.
On a recent morning show, national radio talk show host Glenn Beck also sounded a critical tone toward almond farmers, citing the frequently quoted figure that it takes one gallon of water to produce one almond. He played a sound bite of Gov. Brown justifying his defense of farmers from cutbacks by noting that farmers already have sustained zero allocations from the Central Valley Water Project, the federally controlled aqueduct system. Beck nonchalantly said, "whatever, I don't know what that is."
Mr. Beck, getting no water from the canal is not a "whatever" but a life and death to many farmers. Just look at what zero allocations are doing to places like western Merced County where unemployment is as high as 50 percent because the farming jobs have dried up and blown away.
Such ignorance of Valley farming needs does not serve our farmers well. There are also many urban legislators who don't understand the importance of water to Valley farmers and they will be gunning for them.
Almonds are an easy target. Urbanites see it as a crop people can do without and taking backseat to beef producers or those who grow vegetables. But almonds are the biggest crop in Stanislaus County, and that accounts for thousands of jobs and produces a billion dollars in income infused into the local economy. Taking almonds away from Stanislaus County would be like taking Disneyland away from Anaheim - it would be economic annihilation.
According to Carissa Sauer of the Almond Board of California, California agriculture uses 41 percent of California's total water supply, not the often quoted 80 percent. Almond orchards make up less than 12 percent of the state's total irrigated farmland but use only eight percent of the state's agricultural water.
Break it down further. If you hold to the one gallon per almond figure (and that's inaccurate), that's 23 gallons per ounce of almond meat. How does that compare to the water use for other sources of protein? An ounce of peas take 45 gallons, an ounce of lentils takes 71 gallons and an ounce of beef takes 106 gallons.
However, the water per almond consumption is much less than the one gallon per kernel figure. With the average acre producing 2,390 pounds of kernel (nut) per acre, that would come out to about 400 gallons of water per pound. That is three-quarters to a gallon per nut (including shell and hull). Hulls are sold as feed for cows, which means less hay or alfalfa needs to be grown and less water used. Hulls are about half of the weight of almond "fruit" so divide the three-quarters to a gallon in half and that's a more accurate amount of water use per kernel.
Farmers have not been big water hogs because water is so cheap. Since 2003, farmers have invested $2.9 billion upgrading irrigation systems on 2.4 million acres with a 14 percent reduction in applied water use in agriculture and a 25 percent increase in production volume. Over the last decades, the almond industry has reduced the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent. The state is giving farmers a 20 percent water allocation, local irrigation districts are allocating less water and the federal government is giving no water to farmers. That means some farmers are ripping out orchards. Last year alone, the drought cost farmers $1.5 billion and the loss of more than 17,000 jobs.
When farming jobs go, so do other jobs like a service station in Huron since the 1970s that scaled back jobs for lack of business due to a lack of disposable income.
As always with liberals who like attacking "big" anything (big tobacco, big oil and big Walmart but not big government), there has been an attempt to make "big" agriculture look like the big water problem. That's just not true. More than 90 percent of almond farms are family-owned farms and about 75 percent are less than 100 acres in size.
The suggestion that ag is not important in the California economy is a farce. It is of unparalleled importance to our Valley. Almonds were worth $1 billion to the Stanislaus County economy in 2013. Imagine the loss of that income to the county and you can see how devastating that would be to the local economy of one of the most economically depressed areas of California.
The Sierra Club leftists bristle with the idea of more dams as being a solution. I keep hearing them say that more storage would not do us any good in a drought. Get a clue, dummies. The idea behind damming up water is so that you will have it for use in drier times, whether summer and drought. If the state had built dams decades ago, we'd have more water stored up today. This additional storage will be more important as the state faces future droughts; and yes, California tends to have droughts now and then and it's not the result of climate change. When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember our PE teacher telling us "If it's brown, flush it down; if it's yellow, let it mellow."
Which leads me to another often overlooked point about ground water. The water used to grow crops helps to recharge the groundwater table, which is tapped by urban dwellers and farmers alike.
There are other things - besides building more dams to create reservoirs on our rivers - which California should get to work on. Instead of high-speed rail, we would do better to concentrate on desalinization plants. And as gross as it sounds, there is the technology available to recycle wastewater into sterile, clean, good-tasting drinking water. It's not so gross when you consider that already every glass of water that we drink has already passed through another living creature since the advent of planet Earth. It's a psychological hurdle to get over as Orange County has found since recycling wastewater there starting in 2008. By the way, the cost of their purification process to recharge aquifers is about a third of the cost of desalination plants for double the amount of water.
The sky is not falling. Keep growing almonds, which are a nutritional powerhouse and good for the heart. But you state legislators, had better get rolling on solutions. Conservation alone isn't the answer.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org