Saturday, May 2, 2015

Almonds Almonds Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink

Since my first car trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco over 50 years ago, I've made the trek dozens and dozens of times.  The first trip was up old Highway 101, which was the old style US highway that ran through the middle of city after city, mostly near the downtown areas.  That made the trip 10 hours long or more, such on that first trip we actually stayed overnight the first day, in Salinas at the Sandstone Motel.  Since Interstate 5 was completed in the 1980s, that has been our primary route up north, but though the route has changed, one thing has stayed the same--driving past miles and miles of farmland, often wondering what crop was growing there.  (One of my friends came up with the practical comment that a law should be passed requiring farmers to label their crops for the benefit of passing motorists.)

However after a recent trip to San Francisco and back on Interstate 5, I came to the realization that in one respect everything has suddenly changed.  There really is no wondering what's growing alongside the highway, now, as it's now mostly almond trees.  Actually almond trees have been around at least a few years, and at one time I did wonder what kind of tree it was.  Pistachio? Peach? Apricot?  Then the only time we ever drove up north in late February, we witnessed all the trees in full bloom.  Doing a quick internet search disclosed that the almond trees were in bloom, and we were fortunate enough to see them during the very short period each that the blossoms were out.

But while blooming almond trees were a marvelous sight, as everybody seems to know now, all those almonds along the highway have a nefarious side.  Almond trees are water hogs compared to other crops, and as such they are proliferating as our water supply, both runoff and ground water, is greatly diminishing.  In the old days we used to see (well, I'm guessing because the farmers didn't label their fields) growing corn, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and citrus trees, among crops along the highway.  While there are still some other crops growing, it's more and more almonds all the time.

The problem is that what we think of as normal rainfall for California for the past century and a half, dating back to the beginning of California's agriculture industry, may have been an aberrant rainy period, and today's drought could be the old normal coming back, at least in the opinion of some climatologists.  If this is true, there just isn't going to be enough water around for everyone.  For those who drive the Interstate 5 corridor, you've doubtless seen for many years the political billboards put up by farm organizations talking about how water for farms means jobs and food production.  I used to feel sorry for the farmers as I passed those signs on the highway.  After all, they are growing a majority of the produce consumed by the United States.  But with almond trees, these products aren't being grown to meet an existing demand.  Rather, the almond growers have created their own demand that didn't exist before, to the point that almonds account by themselves for 10 percent of all water consumption in California (or if you believe  the almond growers, 9 percent).   It's not that the water shortage has suddenly snuck up on us from behind.  So those growers who rapidly expanded their almond production knowing about potential water issues are in no position to ask for sympathy.


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