Despite years of intense drought in California marked by the declaration of multiple drought emergencies, dwindling water supplies, and the collapse of Delta smelt and salmon populations spurred by water exports from the Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta to agribusiness, the state's almond acreage exploded by nearly 78 percent from 2010 to 2022, according to new research by Food & Water Watch.
This journalist has written about the gargantuan water needs of nut crops like almonds and pistachios grown by billionaire agribusiness tycoons like Stewart and Lynda Resnick in the San Joaquin Valley for many years, but the new Food & Water Watch report has zeroed in on the precise water cost of a boom period in the expansion of those crops.
Between 2017 and 2021, almond bearing acres grew by 32 percent and pistachio acres increased by 63 percent, according to the new report.
“That expansion necessitated the withdrawal of an extra 523 billion gallons of water for irrigation — enough water to supply nearly four million households with enough water for an entire year. In a megadrought where small farmers and households are struggling to survive, those numbers are sobering,” the group revealed.
The report disclosed the following in almond and pistachio acreage trends:
● Despite dwindling water supplies and years of intense droughts, -thirsty almond acreage in California has increased steadily since the 1990s.
● An estimated 1,640,000 acres of land were dedicated to water-hungry almonds in 2021 in California according to the USDA, including 320,000 acres producing almonds and 320,000 not yet bearing acres.
● According to 2021 USDA Census data, 409,000 acres were pistachio bearing acres – a 64 percent increase in bearing acres compared to 2017.
● Total almond and pistachio bearing and non-bearing acres in 2021 amounted to more than 2,700 square miles.
● Almond and pistachio orchards are permanent and need to be watered year-round, which is becoming increasingly difficult with limited water resources.
● Small farmers who do not have senior water rights or the capital to drill deeper wells to pump large amounts of groundwater must make difficult decisions with their limited water.
● The continuation of the intense drought in 2022, high water prices and a myriad of other factors are prompting some farmers to reconsider their water allocation towards the thirsty crop.
The increase in water-hungry almond and pistachio crop acreage couldn't come at a worse time - during an intense drought as warmer temperatures have become the rule, due to climate change. Food and Water notes that “warmer temperatures mean crops require more water to make up for the additional water lost via evapotranspiration.”
The report cites Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) data revealing that crop water demands increased by 8 percent in 2021 – in response to average temperatures that year being nearly 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the average annual temperature during the 20th century.
“Because surface water is drying up during the drought, state and federal water projects are delivering less and less water to farmers. Insufficient surface water, lack of groundwater regulations and advancing technology have led large agribusinesses to pump groundwater at an alarming rate for years,” the report continues.
Groundwater accounts for 30 percent of water used by California agriculture in wet years, and a staggering 80 percent of water in dry years, the report notes.
“The majority of these crops are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, an arid landscape where 683 wells have gone dry this year alone — a 123 percent increase from last year,” the group states. “Unlike industrial agribusiness, most small farmers and residents in the Central Valley who rely on private wells for daily water use can’t afford to drill ever deeper in search of groundwater. And while Governor Gavin Newsom dodges mandatory action on the drought, that unequal access is likely to grow.”
According to a 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service, almonds and pistachios require an average of 3.5 acre-feet of water (about 1.1 million gallons) applied per acre of nut trees annually.
The report also reveals than an estimated 58 percent of California’s almonds were exported in 2020 – “essentially exporting 880 billion gallons of the state’s already limited water supply.”
Read the complete research findings here.
The California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) has also published a short report on almonds and agricultural water use in California: https://bit.ly/aboutalmonds
C-WIN says agriculture uses 34 million acre-feet of water, or 80% of the 43 million acre-feet of California’s developed water supply, but contributes only 2% to the California economy.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, almond acreage went from 640,000 acres to 1,640,000 acres between 2004 and 2021. San Joaquin County alone went from 1,757 acres to 43,121 between 2008 and 2021, C-WIN reported.
C-WIN reported almonds use approximately 4.9-5.7 million acre-feet of water per year, which is up to 17% of the total agricultural water use in California and 13% of the total developed water supply.
“Since California’s developed water supply is 43 million acre-feet, 5.7 million acre-feet is 13% of the total developed water supply in California, or conservatively 11% of the total supply,” the group observed.
At the same time as almond and pistachio crop acreage has skyrocketed in California, Governor Gavin Newsom has been moving forward with the Delta Tunnel, voluntary water agreements and the construction of Sites Reservoir to benefit powerful corporate agribusiness interests. These projects will only worsen the ecological collapse in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary and hasten the extinction of endangered Sacramento River spring and winter-run chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon.
The Governor’s support of these projects is no surprise, since Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the largest orchard fruit growers in the world and major promoters of the Delta Tunnel and increased water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, have donated a total of $366,800 to Governor Gavin Newsom since 2018, including $250,000 to the campaign to fight the Governor’s recall.
Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in the 2018 election cycle, based on the data from www.followthemoney.org. That figure includes a combined $116,800 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo, combined with $579,998 in the agriculture donations category.
The Resnicks, nicknamed “the Koch Brothers of California” by activists, have contributed many millions of dollars to candidates from both sides of the political aisle and to proposition campaigns so they can continue selling back public water to the public at a huge profit while promoting legislation and other efforts to weaken laws protecting fish, wildlife and water. As Josh Harkinson wrote in Mother Jones:
“The Resnicks aren’t just pumping to irrigate their fruit and nut trees—they’re also in the business of farming water itself. Their land came with decades-old contracts with the state and federal government that allow them to purchase water piped south by state canals. The Kern Water Bank gave them the ability to store this water and sell it back to the state at a premium in times of drought. According to an investigation by the Contra Costa Times, between 2000 and 2007 the Resnicks bought water for potentially as little as $28 per acre-foot (the amount needed to cover one acre in one foot of water) and then sold it for as much as $196 per acre-foot to the state, which used it to supply other farmers whose Delta supply had been previously curtailed. The couple pocketed more than $30 million in the process.”
The Resnicks have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to not only Newsom, but to Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other governors in California. Their donations of many millions of dollars to candidates, campaigns and committees, as well as contributions of hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of California system and the arts through the Resnick Family Foundation, have bought them disproportionate influence on water and environmental policy in California.
On May 4 of this year, the Resnicks joined Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Newsom, Pasadena mayor Victor Gordo, and other guests and members of the Caltech community on May 4 to break ground on the “Resnick Sustainability Center” at Caltech. A press release from Caltech claimed “the 79,500-square-foot project, which will grace the western edge of the Caltech campus, was made possible by a $750 million pledge from the Resnicks to Caltech. The gift, made in 2019, is the largest in the Institute’s history and among the largest ever for environmental sustainability research.”
How did the Resnicks acquire so much water to grow their crops and sell water back to the state and other water users? Well, during a secret meeting in Monterey between state regulators and major irrigators in 1994, the conclave’s participants decided to eliminate the “urban preference” directive from the operational mandate of the State Water Project (SWP), according to C-WIN: bit.ly/...
“In other words, cities would no longer be first in line for water allocations during drought. Cutbacks would be shared by cities and farms equally,” the group wrote.
“Then something even more appalling happened. In the same meeting, the State ceded control of the Kern Water Bank, a vast, rechargeable aquifer designated as an emergency reservoir for urban drought relief, to the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA). Almost immediately, KCWA transferred 58% control of the water bank to Stewart and Lynda Resnick, Beverly Hills billionaires and heavyweight Democratic Party fundraisers who – among other ventures – cultivate 130,000 acres of almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates in the San Joaquin Valley,” the group wrote.
There is no doubt that “Monterey Agreements” helped clear the path for the privatization of public trust water resources in California for the benefit of agribusiness billionaires like the Resnicks. The result is that one billionaire oligarch couple alone — the Resnicks — now use more water to irrigate their crops than the residents of Los Angeles use in an entire year: www.motherjones.com/...