Monthly Archives: April 2015

Hard to defend.

I have marked the almond acreage at the beginning and end of the 2006-2009 drought (700,000 acres at the beginning, 810,000 acres at the end). At the beginning of our current drought, almond acreage was 870,000 acres. In 2013, after two years of drought, it was up to 940,000 acres. It looks like the 2014 California Almond Acreage Report comes out at the end of April (here’s 2013). I will be excited to see a new total acreage. (Source)
Almond acreage since 1990

Let’s make this all explicit. Since this drought began, almonds have expanded by 70,000 acres. That’s 280,000 acft/year of new water demand for a snack that will be exported. That water will come from groundwater or from other farmers. At the same time, the California EPA is literally telling urban users to take five minute cold showers. If there is a lot of new acreage in 2014 and 2015, it is going to be difficult for the Brown administration to stay friends with them.

A couple notes:
Not-having this new almond acreage would not mean wet water for cities. But it would mean less overdraft of San Joaquin Valley groundwater.

I should be explicit that I don’t love applying California’s water resources to alfalfa/silage for meat and dairy, nor wine grapes either. But I sense that most others are much more culturally attached to cheap meat and dairy, and also to wine, than they are to almonds. In my own life, I could readily accept all three (almonds, meat/dairy, wine) becoming rarer and more expensive.

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Why an almond ban?

Secretary of Agriculture Ross was fast with the defense of almonds, which I would hope would be the case since it has been a hot topic.  But it feels so right, so good to criticize almonds (and I have for years).  Why a single-crop ban?

1.  It is readily enforceable.  Visual inspection would be sufficient, the delineation is clear (almonds, no, everything else, yes).  The pain is contained to a very small segment of the population, some of whom are buffered by their wealth.

2.  It would free up genuine wet water.  One million acres of almonds use four million acre-feet of water and even in California, four million acre-feet of water is real water.  That’s about the amount of annual overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley during this drought.

3.  Almonds seem frivolous.  I like them myself, but they are just a snack.

4.  The only justification for almonds is that they draw high prices, but that means that a public resource that everyone wants right now is being transformed to private profits for a few.  The conserving public isn’t getting to enjoy the use of that money in exchange for their sacrifice of water.

5.  Almonds, especially the half quarter million acres of almonds planted since the start of the 2006 drought, feel like an arrogant fuck you to the rest of us.  The planters knew of drought and decided they’d go ahead, plant trees that must get water and break the aquifers if they had to.   Those are everyone’s aquifers, but again, not everyone’s enjoyment of almond profits.

An almond ban doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.  It could be ‘no new trees in declining groundwater basins’.  It could be ‘we’ll protect our historic almond industry in the Sac Valley but not expansion since 2006, since they must have known about drought’.  But it keeps getting mentioned because it makes a lot of intuitive sense.   If the State Board does nothing on tree nuts, Secretary Ross will have to keep giving her practiced answers.

ADDED 4/14: Almonds themselves are not evil, but overdrafting our aquifers and destroying our riverine habitats to provide cheap almonds to the world is not the choice I would make.

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My thoughts on Governor Brown’s reasons for not including agriculture in mandatory water restrictions.

Governor Brown lists three reasons in the ABC interview below.

  1. The lack of delivery from the water projects and water rights curtailments of junior appropriators is already sufficient cutback.
  2. It would end Californian food production and displace hundreds of thousands of people.
  3. Our historical water rights system gives (some) farmers precedent.

1.  This argument doesn’t impress me much, because we know that farmers are still getting water. They had a cheap surface water cutback, but replaced that supply with groundwater.  About 500,000 acres out of 9,500,000 acres were fallowed.  The remaining 9,000,000 acres used water to keep permanent crops alive or finished other crops.  Growers paid more money for this water, or they increased their overdraft.  Their actual cutback was 500,000acres/9,500,000acres = 5.2%.  I’d be happy to grant that growers deficit irrigated, or watered the very minimum to keep crops alive, so that percent might be higher, even 8% or 9%.  That’s about in line with urban water conservation last year.  The water right curtailments and lack of project water are not imposing a burden on agriculture whole disproportionate to the burden urban users shouldered last year.  We will know that agriculture has matched the 25% cuts being imposed on urban users because 2.4 million irrigated acres will be fallowed.

2a.  Brown said “Of course we could shut it off,” said Brown. “If you don’t want to produce any food and import it from some other place.”  I will never understand why agriculture is discussed as a toggle, either on or off.  If we cut back some ag water, all the other growers will refuse to grow food in solidarity?  You could still have A LOT OF AGRICULTURE, even if you cut back A LOT.  That’s because there is a WHOLE LOT now.  Ag could cut back the 2.4 million irrigated acres just with tree nuts and alfalfa.  California could still supply literally every other thing it grows now, every single leaf of spinach.

2b.  Brown mentioned displacing hundreds of thousands of growers (because if one water district* gets cut off, every other grower in the state leaves as well.  The growers, united, will never be divided.).   I note that growers have been drawing down groundwater so that personal and municipal wells are going dry.  This fastidiousness about driving people from their homes is not reciprocated.  But look, if it is going to be very hard on farmworkers, we could help them by … giving them fat cash.  We can come up with money more readily than we can create water.

3. Our historical water rights system.  My guess is that until they (Gov Brown and the State Board) are absolutely forced to it, they will not take this on.  Partly out of respect for history and law, partly because where would you start, partly because the lawsuits would start. But Gov. Brown knows full well they are an unfair, convoluted mess.  Two more years of drought and emergency powers will get turned on the water rights system too**.

*I propose they start with Dudley Ridge Water District, which has not one resident and is wholly owned by a few  corporations.

**Here’s what you do, State Board. Spend the two years getting ready to put the next system in place. Don’t even glance at the existing system. Grant every person a headright of 30gppd that travels with them.  Cities can administer the aggregate, based on population.  Figure out what instream flows should be.  Decide which five million acres should be farmed and grant those lands 3.5 acft/acre.  In years with more water than that total, users can buy more directly from the State.

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What Governor Brown has said about not requiring agricultural water restrictions.

There are almost too many editorials and posts to link to, decrying agriculture’s exemption from the mandatory water use restrictions that came out April 1st.  I want to think about why Governor Brown is doing this, but I’d like us to work from the same texts.  So far as I have seen, here are his own words about why agriculture has been exempted.

From ABC news:

Brown said farmers have already been denied irrigation water from federal surface supplies, and they’ve had to leave hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted.

“Of course we could shut if off,” said Brown. “If you don’t want to produce any food and import it from some other place, theoretically you could do that. But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don’t think it’s needed.”

Brown pointed out, there are farmers with “senior” water rights.  “Some people have a right to more water than others,” said Brown. “That’s historic, that’s built into the legal framework of California. And yes, if things continue at this level that’s probably going to be examined.”

A nicely done piece in the Western Farm Press:

To the premise that agriculture is getting a “free ride” in the Governor’s order, Cowin said, “Ag water use has been significantly affected during this drought… The state board (Marcus’ board) has implemented curtailments on some water rights holders throughout the Central Valley and elsewhere, so Ag water use is definitely being affected here.”

To a similar question, Marcus responded: “They (farmers) are already cut back under much harsher circumstances through the seniority (water rights) system.”

To yet another question, Cowin openly disagreed with a reporter’s question and premise, saying: “We are asking Ag water users to conserve water. In fact, the enforcement in this case includes curtailing water available to them.”

CDFA Secretary Ross likewise defended the thrifty practices farmers have employed when irrigating crops.

Ross defended almond growers, who in recent months have been on the receiving end of some rather brutal attacks for irrigation water use.

Without skipping a beat, Ross pointed out that almonds are grown in California:

  •  Because markets are available;

  •  Because demand continues to increase;

  •  Because of the availability and price of land and water; and

  •  Because of the lack of labor needed to produce tree nuts in a marketplace that is moving towards more automation.

I am going to assume his executives are representing Governor Brown’s administration appropriately, and that these reflect Governor Brown’s thinking as well.  So, let’s go over these reasons.

UPDATED:  This is a very nice summary of administration thought, so far as I know what administration thought is.

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