California’s drought continues, and tracking all the stories about it would overflow even a blog dedicated to the stuff. Inexplicably, few of the stories focus on the plight of the poor small stream fly fisherman and the privations he’ll suffer during the drought, but the New York Times does cover two fairly appalling trends in the California water landscape.
First, investors — with little real connection to the land — are buying up Central Valley farmland. And second, growers are planting far more water-intensive crops than before:
Several insurance and pension funds have snapped up land in the Central and Pajaro Valleys and replaced traditional crops like spinach, melons and asparagus with ones requiring more water, like avocados, nuts and berries, which command premium prices thanks to soaring demand from baby boomers and the international market. The region produces twice as many almonds, roughly two billion pounds, as it did in 2006.
The boom in nut trees, water managers in the valleys say, has strained the state’s water resources even further. Brian Lockwood, senior hydrologist at the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, pointed to the strawberry fields that have largely displaced the apple orchards that used to be major producers in the Pajaro Valley.
“Apples need about a half acre-foot of water per acre, whereas strawberries take two or more acre-feet,” Mr. Lockwood said. “You can’t blame growers for seeking better-paying crops, but it has quadrupled water use per acre.”
To get a sense of what kind of numbers we’re talking about, here are the percentage increases (2003-2012) of water-intensive crops (credited to the California Department of Food & Agriculture):
- Strawberries (+30%)
- Almonds (+44%)
- Raspberries (+80%)
- Pistachios (+102%)
In other words, all those acres that have been fallowed by the drought (recent estimates say as much as 800,000, or 7% of California’s cropland) might not have been fallowed if the field across the road had been planted with spinach instead of strawberries or almonds.
I’m sympathetic to the growers. Droughts are hard, and because salmon and other natives are slowly going extinct, the growers have less water to begin with. It’s a hard place.
Yet planting more water-intensive crops seems like a pretty poor response to an ongoing water crisis — one that has generated a lot of cries for government aid which are being answered to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. (And exactly who’s going to pay for all the damage caused by overpumping groundwater?)
We clearly don’t have the water to increase our need for it among growers, and I’m not at all amenable to waving good-bye to native fish in order to make a tasty snack treat for an overseas market (the vast majority of almonds grown in the state are shipped overseas).
Next time someone attempts to reduce California’s water wars to something ludicrous like “why are you favoring fish over people,” ask them why they’re hugging almonds instead of the farmer down the road. And then maybe we can all get down to discussing the real issues.
See you taking a very short shower so trout in the Upper Sac can breathe a little easier, Tom Chandler.