Should California stop growing almonds and alfalfa?

As drought and climate change continue to ravage California’s water supply, an environmental advocacy is calling on the state to limit the cultivation of thirsty crops like almonds and alfalfa, saying the farming industry is eating up most of the state’s supplies at the expense of residents.

Large agribusiness and factory farms — as well as oil and gas operators — are among the largest water users in the state and should therefore make greater sacrifices, argues a report by the nonprofit Food and Water Watch. The group is urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to develop a new water policy that halts the expansion of agriculture and the fossil fuel industry while delivering on the state’s promise to provide clean, safe, and affordable water for all residents.

“California needs to fundamentally rethink and change our water infrastructure, and the governor currently has the authority to act immediately,” said Chirag Bhakta, the organization’s California director. “California is currently mired in a long-term drought, and while it is, the state is still misusing billions and billions of gallons of water that goes into the fossil fuel sector and large-scale agriculture.”

The report, released Wednesday, comes at a time when the state is feeling increasing pressure to reduce the amount of water it takes from the Colorado River and producers are grappling with cutbacks.

The report’s authors found that expanding acreage for nut crops such as almonds and pistachios used 520 billion gallons more water in 2021 than in 2017, suggesting expansion is occurring despite tightened water supplies. That’s enough to feed more than 34 million people, or nearly 90% of California’s population, for a year, the report said.

The Food and Water Watch report also found that alfalfa uses an average of 945 billion gallons of water a year and that mega-dairies use more than 142 million gallons a day to maintain their cows, while oil and gas companies use 3 billion gallons as of 2018 expenses and 2021 for drilling work.

Andrew Ayres, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, said that while it’s fair to point out the agricultural industry’s water-consuming use, “it’s also important to remember all the benefits we’re getting through the use of water in these preserved applications.”

California grows more than 80% of the world’s almonds and a large portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and other nuts.

“California, especially during the winter, produces most things like lettuce and other leafy greens that would otherwise be very difficult to get your hands on year-round,” he said.

Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said in an email that a “culture of conservation” has driven the state’s agriculture for decades.

He cited data from the Department of Water Resources showing that farmers and ranchers used 14% less water over a 35-year period while increasing yields by 38%, and that almond farmers reduced the amount of water consumed by a pound over a 20-year period Grow almonds by 33%.

The industry “is committed to achieving an additional 20% reduction by 2025,” he said, adding that “water-efficient micro-irrigation is currently being used by 85% of California’s almond farms.”

As for dairy farms, the water used for milk production has shrunk by 88% over a 50-year period, Lyle said.

Although agriculture accounts for only about 3% of California’s gross domestic product, it provides about 11% of the country’s food supply, more than any other state. California is also the nation’s largest producer of various crops, including almonds, artichokes, olives, and walnuts.

But agriculture is also a thirsty sector, accounting for about 80% of the state’s water for human consumption. While that sounds like a huge proportion, it’s not unique to California, said Thomas Harter, a professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis.

“Any place in the world that has irrigated agriculture is going to be the dominant water user just because of the way food is grown with irrigation,” he said.

In California, most water comes from underground aquifers, which the state relies on more during dry years. Groundwater overpumping in some parts of the state is drying up wells in record numbers, causing land to subside and harming wildlife and ecosystems.

In response to the problem, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, designed to regulate the amount of groundwater pumping in California. But the timeline for implementation stretches over more than two decades, leading to a frenzy of well drilling by many in hopes of tapping supplies before they are cut off.

The report’s authors say the timeline “falls well short of protecting groundwater by postponing action until 2040.” They argue that SGMA puts industry before people. “Low-resource households, people of color and communities already burdened with environmental injustices are more likely to face severe impacts of drought and water stress,” they wrote.

Lyle said SGMA is already being implemented and that the Department of Water Resources has required groundwater sustainability agencies to submit plans to protect drinking water for vulnerable communities. Water agencies must meet their sustainability goals within 20 years, he said.

The report also looked at the dairy industry, whose products accounted for the state’s highest farm revenue at $7.57 billion in 2021, the agency said Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Harter said there is no doubt that animal-based foods have a larger overall water footprint than plant-based foods.

“I’m not advocating against animal products, but I think the more important part is finding a better balance between these over the long term [the two] that allows us to be sustainable, not just in California but around the world,” he said.

Like dairy products, many crops grown in the state are shipped overseas. According to the report, more than half of the state’s almonds are exported, which equates to about 800 billion gallons of water a year. Alfalfa is also widely exported, with approximately 35% of California hay products shipped overseas in 2020.

Although alfalfa requires a lot of water to grow, it has a high rate of return depending on how much water is applied, said Daniel Putnam, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis who focuses on alfalfa. The plant’s deep root system is also good for soil health.

However, he did concede that the method of growing the crops, most often using gravity flood irrigation systems, could be improved “with more careful irrigation systems” and with higher yields.

“So growers have been working on overhead irrigation, they’ve been working on underground drip irrigation, and I think all of these show promise,” he said.

But while there’s room for improvement, Putnam stressed that farming uses a lot of water because it takes a lot of water to grow almost anything.

“Even with urban water use, most of it goes to landscaping, most of it goes to plants,” he said. “And there’s a reason for that – plants need a lot of water, and that’s the way it is. … food systems need water.”

Among the recommendations the report makes for Newsom and state agencies are ending new gas and oil drilling and banning new mega-dairies; ensure that water rights and allocations benefit the public; and strengthening groundwater protection.

At the federal level, she called on Congress to pass legislation like the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act that would “fully fund our water and sanitation systems, put water systems back under public control, help improve access to water.” to ensure and affordability and restore the federal government’s commitment to water conservation.”

Bhakta said California’s water supply problems require a rethink and restructuring of the way water is used in the state. “Our main point is that we need to put ordinary Californians before the profits of fossil fuel companies and big agribusinesses.” Should California stop growing almonds and alfalfa?

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