The Sacramento Bee proposes to write a yearlong series on almonds in California. I will be reading that with great interest. I was disappointed, however, by their close in a recent editorial.
No one can tell farmers what to grow or not grow. The market decides that. We all eat what they produce. But water is a shared necessity. Even if California muddles through this drought, a most basic question lingers: How will it divide water … 20 and 30 years from now?
This is, of course, wrong. It is true that we do not currently tell farmers what to grow, that we let farmers assess their chances in a market and accept their profits and losses independently. In that sense, we do not tell farmers what to grow. But we could tell them what they may and may not do with the water that belongs to the State as a whole, although we have issued some rights to use it in some conditions to private citizens.
I have read Felicia Marcus say that they are not looking at crop-specific bans (my paraphrase, and apologies for not finding the link), which I suspect is an allusion to almonds. Without specifically naming almonds, however, the State Board could find that in our new more variable climate, it is not reasonable to plant (or irrigate) permanent crops like trees and vines in a basin with declining groundwater levels.
I like this approach for two reasons. First, it is true. It is not reasonable to grow trees that need a fixed amount of water every year when the amount of available surface water is wildly variable and the buffer of groundwater is going away in the lifespan of the tree. Second, it could bring big players to the table as agencies form their new groundwater management plans. There is an out for people who want to grow permanent crops in that rule; they could locate in groundwater basins that are being adequately recharged. Or, they could find ways to bring their own basins into balance. The rule ‘no trees or vines overlying an overdrafted groundwater basin’ could end the race to dig the deepest well. It could prevent stories like this:
Guadian … bought his own farm seven years ago, planting 150 acres of almonds near Mendota. Last year, he invested $500,000 to drill a 1,100-foot well on his property.
Guadian says the well water is too salty for planting cantaloupes or tomatoes or most other vegetables without blending it with surface water supplies or paying for costly purification that could wipe out profits. But his almond trees like the well water. And now he’s thinking of buying another 150 acres nearby to grow pistachios.
Still the old farmer wonders about the future. “What’s going to happen in 12 years when my well goes dry?” he asks, then answers. “Those trees are going to die.”