Almonds and Water

I have no sympathy for California almond growers.

California is a poor place to settle and civilize. It’s not as bad as Hawaii; it has some natural resources with which it can feed itself, but thirty-eight million people live in a state that is largely arid. There are regions that get more rain and support vegetation better — but they tend to be mountainous and don’t support agriculture well.

I lived in California as a child. I lived through the droughts of the 1970s. I remember them laying a water pipeline from the East Bay into Marin because Marin’s reservoirs weren’t receiving enough water for the county’s needs. I remember reading about the state’s aqueduct system, moving water all around the state from where it could be captured to where it was needed. On the one hand, that’s an impressive engineering feat. On the other hand, it’s the symptom of a problem: economies developed where they couldn’t be sustained locally.

I understand at some level why water rights exist and why they’re so valued. At another level, though, the greater good isn’t well served by unrestricted water rights.

A farmer needs to know that he (or she) can rely upon a source of water over years if he is to invest in his farm. We need farmers to grow food to feed us, so at that level, water rights support the greater good. However, when farmers start growing crops that are mostly exported, such as almonds, that is harder to cite as an example of supporting the greater good. Almond production has sky-rocketed in recent decades, and foreign demand has driven up the price of almonds enough to support this increase in production. If water had to be bought on the open market, the economies of almond production might be very different, and there might be less almond milk available for the lactose-intolerant, in California, the rest of the USA, and elsewhere.

Almond growers point out that they’ve become more water efficient in the recent decades, reducing by one-third the amount of water they need per unit. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using one-third less less water than on some prior date; when you look at those production graphs, all you can infer is that the use of water for almonds hasn’t grown as fast as the almond output. “It could be worse,” doesn’t mean, “It isn’t bad.”

This might be one case in which government interference in the free market, such as the granting of water rights, clearly perverts natural market forces that might otherwise encourage more equitable use of resources. Of course, business usually only opposed government interference with market forces at the consumer level; when those government efforts protect businesses, philosophical purity becomes unaffordable for the businesses.

Almonds and agriculture aren’t the only problem, of course. Just as the US population has grown from 200 million to past 300 million in my lifetime, so has California’s population grown, by an even greater rate. California’s electronics industry has erupted in my lifetime, and while they’ve probably reduced their water usage from peak years, it’s almost certainly higher than it was fifty years ago, because the industry barely existed fifty years ago.

It goes against human nature, though, to tell people, “You can’t move here,” and the electronics industry has done more to drive the modern economy than the almond growers. You can argue that people should move elsewhere or that electronics manufacturers should move to where water supplies are more plentiful, but that implies that the research universities that incubated the electronics industry should move, too, to the economies that grow up around them would grow elsewhere.

Who’s going to convince Stanford and CalTech that they need to relocate to the Gulf Coast so they have a better water supply? The Pacific Northwest might be an easier sell, but the temperate zones there are just as narrowly concentrated as they are in California. If we don’t talk as much about drought in Oregon and Washington, that doesn’t mean it’s not a risk. Seattle’s notoriously rainy conditions won’t increase proportionally with population growth.

It’s not an easy problem, water management and scarcity. Some people believe that Mideast peace will be threatened by water issues if we ever get to a point at which sectarian violence isn’t a threat. California and the rest of the USA Southwest will always have water issues. But that doesn’t mean that rapid growth in a water-intensive crop fueled by overseas demand isn’t a contributing factor that needs to be called out and addressed.

As I said, I’m not sympathetic to California’s almond growers.


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