More almonds? Make them prove they have the water first.

Rabobank predicts that almond acreage will increase by 2.5% to 3% annually for the next ten years, drought or no drought.  If so, almond acreage would increase from 940,000 acres today to 1,200,000 – 1, 260,000 acres in 2025.  We can round down, take the easy number.  That would be an additional ~250,000 acres of almonds, which will peak at an additional million acre-feet of annual demand on our water supplies for the next thirty years.  Or perhaps 250,000 acres of something else will go out of production.  Does the State Board expect that climate change will bring an additional MAF of precip to the state?  Are the growers making planting decisions at this moment counting on reliable surface supplies for every year in the next twenty years?  In this year, a year of bare Sierras, a year of curtailments to senior diverters, you know that they are not.

Anyone planting almonds this year is calculating that the new groundwater management plans have such a long lead time that they can get one more generation of almonds in before declining groundwater supplies catch up with them.  In the meantime, before their wells fail or groundwater management plans catch up with them, they are choosing to burden our failing aquifers.

State Board or the legislature, you should change the default for these decisions.  You should issue a moratorium on planting permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels.  The connection between permanent crops and overdrafting groundwater is not a tenuous nexus.  Put the burden on growers to prove that the basin is not overdrafted and can handle the additional draft.  Once they show the Regional Board that, the Boards would be more than happy to approve new permanent acreage.

Think of all the newfound enthusiasm for groundwater management this would create.  Growers who want new acres in trees would want monitoring wells and management plans.  Rather than fight the upcoming changes from the recent groundwater management legislation, growers would be pushing to accelerate them.

What is the worst that could happen?  Growers who are over healthy groundwater aquifers might have a year or two of delay if the data isn’t available to them now.  Growers who are over overdrafted aquifers would have to wait until the aquifer comes into balance.  That is a good thing; those aquifers should not have a new twenty year burden placed on them before they can be recharged.

The thing that genuinely baffles me is that banks are willing to back this expansion.  I know the returns are there so long as there is water, but when groundwater levels drop below the depth of the well, that land (which I assume is the collateral) is immediately worthless.  The returns and the value of the investment both vanish when groundwater goes.  What evidence are banks requiring that an orchard has secure water for the next two decades?  What can they be basing their lending decisions on?  Mr. Crowder, I would love to know.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “More almonds? Make them prove they have the water first.

  1. Steve Bloom

    I don’t see how this would make them happy in any way, until and unless it rains enough so that current pumping can be reduced enough to allow a degree of groundwater recovery.

    I think there’s a somewhat different bet being placed: That if the drought continues, the state government will be forced to uproot the current system of water rights and replace it with open bidding for both surface and groundwater. If that happens, almonds and similar crops win. The banks, too.

  2. This idea of course makes too much sense, and apparently too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  3. Owens Valley

    How about a moratorium on housing developments in groundwater basins that are declining or in areas that don’t have surface water sufficient to supply the human population?
    The real problem in California is unbridled population growth. Almond orchards can be pulled, crops can be fallowed – but you can’t do that with the horribly environmentally destructive housing developments swallowing the best ag land in the US.
    I am a citizen of the Owens Valley. Our water goes not to crops – at least that would have a benefit to some wildlife – it goes to Los Angeles, a city that has not stopped approving massive developments, even in the face of drought and obvious decline in western water resources. The Owens Valley is not a desert, yet it is being turned into one by LA.
    Although the Constitution may assert that water resources belong to all the people, I don’t think the plants and animals voted on that. Water should stay in its basin of origin. The real tragedy of the drought is the collision between human wants and nature’s needs. You can bet who will win.