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Is it nuts to grow almonds during a drought?

April 30, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
The almond, America’s most popular nut and California's most lucrative agriculture export, is also a water guzzler. It takes approximately a gallon of water to grow a single almond. While prices are at record highs due to global demand, the Golden State is also in the middle of a historic drought, which is hurting farmers and residents. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In California, Governor Jerry Brown called this week for ramping up fines for residents and businesses who waste water.

But in this fourth year of the drought, many are asking about the role of some agriculture and farming.

One of the chief targets is one of the state’s most popular exports. Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, went to see for himself. Part of our ongoing reporting “Making Sense” which airs every Thursday on the Newshour.

PAUL SOLMAN: The almond. Revered in some cultures, reviled recently in ours.

Because of almonds, there’s no water.

JOHN AND KEN RADIO SHOW: The almond farmers are using more water than all the people in LA and San Francisco combined.

PAUL SOLMAN: The john and ken show, in Southern California, claims to be the country’s most listened to local talk radio program.

JOHN AND KEN RADIO SHOW: Half the almonds they’re shipping to China! And this is why we’re getting water meters and we’re getting lectured and scolded and we gotta take shorter showers and we can’t water our lawns. This is BS!

PAUL SOLMAN: It was Mother Jones magazine which first reported the stunning statistic: It takes over a gallon of water to grow just one almond.

The press has piled on since, portraying almonds as water wasters in the midst of near-epic drought. And it’s not just the almond, but every nut in the orchard.

PAUL SOLMAN: Are you aware that pistachios take almost one gallon of water per pistachio to grow?

NICK WIEBE:  I had no idea.

PAUL SOLMAN: Does it disturb you to hear that that’s the case?

NICK WIEBE: It does.I don’t know that it disturbs me enough not to buy them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Customers like Nick Wiebe are one reason California’s tree nuts are on a roll: they taste good; they do good.

They are rich in saturated fatty acids, fiber, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and phytosterols.

The august New England Journal of Medicine produced “nuts and death” to accompany a landmark study showing that eating nuts every day could reduce the risk of death by 20 percent.

Small wonder that almonds have passed peanuts as America’s favorite nut.  And nearly every almond eaten in the U.S. is grown in California — a million tons in 2014, twice the amount a decade before.

But while supply has doubled, global demand has run amok, especially in Asia, so that the price has doubled too. Thus almonds have become the golden state’s most lucrative ag export — and 80% of the world’s supply. And that means the state is, in effect, shipping its precious water overseas.

But that’s not why noted environmental lawyer Antonio Rossmann knocks them.

ANTONIO ROSSMANN, The problem is not that we’re selling them to China and Japan.

The problem, says Rossmann, is that farmers and investors are planting so many more almond trees.

ANTONIO ROSSMANN: It’s almost an act of suicide when you see these new plantings now because the water demand actually increases at about five years into the orchard. It’s kind of like a time bomb that’s going to really get worse before it gets better.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, says almond farmer Brad Gleason, so what?

BRAD GLEASON, Almond and pistachio farmer: I’ll show you why we’re using so much water. There is a lot of water that’s going into forming that nut.

PAUL SOLMAN: But a lot less water per ounce of protein, says Gleason, than the competition.

BRAD GLEASON: If you look at the amount of water that’s used in the amount of protein that we generate, we’re by far more efficient than pork, chicken, beef.

PAUL SOLMAN: Especially beef. One ounce of beef — the protein equivalent of about a dozen almonds — requires 106 gallons of water to produce, even more, if it’s raised on irrigated pasture like this one. And who eats just one ounce of beef?

Look, says Gleason…

BRAD GLEASON: We’ve got 320 million people trying to eat three times a day. That’s a billion meals a day and it’s going to have to come from water somehow.

PAUL SOLMAN: And if you include the rest of the world, even the arid southern central valley, with its unique soils, may be a life saver. Unfortunately, these days, getting water here means drilling ever deeper into the aquifer — a practice that threatens the state’s groundwater. This well in Coalinga is going 1750 feet down, to feed a new pistachio ranch.

There is surface water flowing through here from the north, over massive government-built aqueducts. But because of the drought, allocations have been slashed — in Gleason’s water district, to zero: no surface water from the north at all, for the second year in a row.

But those are the rules, says Antonio Rossmann, upon which California’s water system was built.

ANTONIO ROSSMANN: in time of shortage, agriculture would take up to 100% hit for one year to maintain reliability to urban consumers.

In time of plenty, the farmers could buy cheap water and plant as many acres as they could. In time of drought, they would fallow.

PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, leave their fields unplanted, like this one cheek by jowl to the aqueduct.

BRAD GLEASON: This water is headed for Los Angeles…

PAUL SOLMAN: But you can’t fallow an almond orchard — if you don’t water trees, you kill them, and the investment they represent.

So, with little or no piped-in water, and hundreds of thousands of acres of thirsty nut trees in the central valley, there’s a whole lot of drilling going on.

But with prices at record highs because of global demand, wouldn’t almost anyone keep harvesting?

RICHARD HOWITT: I think this is a very rational thing to do.

PAUL SOLMAN: Agricultural economist Richard Howitt.

RICHARD HOWITT:and if the product is a healthy product and a good product, what’s not to like?

PAUL SOLMAN: So when I read that it takes a gallon of water to produce one almond and I’m shocked by it, you think I’m using the wrong metric?

RICHARD HOWITT:  Absolutely. Because I see the value of the water reflected in the value of the almond. And the value of the almond is based on how much people want it.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, consumers want it so much, Dave Phippen’s farm in the northern central valley suffered an almond heist — a “nut job”, you might say — just a few years back.

DAVE PHIPPEN: They called it the nut nappers and they actually got ours over the fourth of July weekend.

A third generation farmer, Phippen has so-called “senior water rights,” granted to his land in the early 20th century in exchange for loss of water when rivers were dammed. But he too is blamed for using one gallon per almond.

DAVE PHIPPEN: We’re used to having a halo, and now all of a sudden we’ve become the demon.

PAUL SOLMAN: We set up this shot, but I think people looking at it are gonna see the water puddling here, in drought-stricken California, and think, ‘this can’t be the most efficient use to which you can put water at this point.’

DAVE PHIPPEN: It won’t be lost. We don’t put any more water on that’ll go beyond the root zone of the trees. This orchard won’t receive water again for about fourteen days.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it’s a gallon of water or more for every almond you grow.

DAVE PHIPPEN: The gallon is so precious. We only have so many gallons. We want to use it for the highest economic benefit…

PAUL SOLMAN: And that, farmer Phippen insists, is growing nuts like almonds, at least up north: an economic benefit their rising price reveals.

As for Brad Gleason’s almonds in the water-starved south:

BRAD GLEASON: when those trees finish out their useful life and they come out, I’m not planting almonds again.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour amidst the nuts of California.