In the Colorado River Basin, I’ve been arguing that if you want to think hard about water policy, you have to be thinking hard about alfalfa. Out in California’s Central Valley, as Felicity Barringer explained last week in her last story for the New York Times (sad face), you’ve got to be thinking about almonds:
Almonds “have totally changed the game of water in California,” said Antonio Rossmann, a Berkeley lawyer specializing in water issues. “It’s hardened demand in the Central Valley.”
Farmers are planting almonds because, as permanent crops, they do not need to be replanted after every harvest. They have been steadily taking over from cotton and lettuce because they are more lucrative. “That’s the highest and best use of the land,” said Ryan Metzler, 45, who grows almonds near Fresno.
The problem is that not only do almonds and pistachios, another newly popular nut, need more water, but the farmers choosing permanent crops cannot fallow them in a dry year without losing years of investment.
Despite drought, almonds in California are on the move. Western Farm Press reported earlier this month that acreage continues to grow, and nurseries are back-ordered.
I’m not sure what “thinking about almonds” means in terms of water policy – which is to say, what is the policy lever attached to the almond discussion? The growth of almond acreage is clearly constraining the degrees of freedom available to California to respond to climate variability, making the system more brittle. If “resilience” is a system’s ability to absorb a shock while retaining its essential functionality, increasing almond acreage seems to be reducing California’s resilience. Alfalfa, in comparison, seems to be tailor made for resilience policy, allowing quicker crop shifting, drought tolerance, and opportunities for transactions to move water around. Almonds seem not to share this resilience characteristic.
What’s the appropriate policy response to California’s almond shift?