Almonds, water policy and cropping decisions

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?


  1. Growers might be required to maintain some “annual” row crop offset acres. In times of drought these offset acres could be fallowed and the water shifted to the nuts.

  2. I wonder which uses more water to produce, a gallon of cow’s milk or a gallon of almond milk. The almond trees may use a lot of water, but I suspect that the cows need a lot more alfalfa to make a gallon of milk. While alfalfa may be easy to leave without water during the summers, I don’t think cows can last long without food or water.

  3. Eric – I think the difference is that you can import alfalfa from a long way away, in effect buffering drought with “virtual water” from places not suffering drought. That gives you a resilience that the almond trees and their milk don’t have.

  4. I have seen a lot of trucks carrying hay north through Pasadena in the last six months. They are presumably importing Colorado River water from the Imperial Valley to feed cows in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. It seems unlikely that they would carry hay all the way from the eastern USA states that have plenty of water.

  5. Almond trees are also a form of doubling down: “you have to give us water or we lose ALL this investment.”

    USACE follows the same “logic” with houses in flood plains…

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