Please note that the original opinion piece is at the url below. However, the piece below has been edited to correct a factual error about water for almonds north of the Delta.
Why almonds cover California
Published 5:13 pm, Tuesday, July 29, 2014
California produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, accounting for an export gross of more than $2.5 billion. Almonds, in short, are a profitable crop. But there’s a big problem with these new plantings in the San Joaquin Valley. Almonds are thirsty.
California’s almond orchards use almost 9 percent of the state’s agricultural water supply, or about 3.5 million acre feet. That’s enough water to supply the domestic needs of the Los Angeles Basin and metropolitan San Diego combined – about 75 percent of the state’s population.
Most of the almond acreage north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is irrigated by farmers holding senior water rights and contracts using groundwater. But San Joaquin Valley almond growers uniformly hold junior surface water contracts. Until the early 1990s, they never would have planted such a water-intensive crop as almonds because they knew their water could be curtailed during droughts so Southern California cities would have enough.
But a 1994 behind-closed-doors deal between the state Department of Water Resourcesand large water contractors changed all that. The so-called Monterey Plus Amendments killed the “urban preference,” the clause in state water law that prioritized the needs of cities over agriculture during droughts. The agreement also allowed private interests to own the Kern Water Bank, a rechargeable aquifer originally designated as urban drought insurance and formerly held as a public resource.
Thus, corporate agriculture gained control over the state’s public water, conveniently ignoring the junior status of their water contracts and the fact that all water rights claims extant in California exceed the amount of available water by a factor of five.
Further, some of the water Big Ag obtained from the Monterey Plus scheme is delivered by the State Water Project at greatly discounted rates. The Monterey Plus Amendments thus freed corporate growers of all reasonable constraint, and they embarked on a large-scale orchard-planting spree. California’s almond crop has tripled since the mid-1990s.
We are now in the grips of a devastating drought, and the response from the San Joaquin Valley orchard owners is predictable: They are demanding more water so their plantings won’t die. Certainly, no one wishes them hardship. But they usurped public water with no concern for ratepayers. Millions of Californians should not suffer to maintain the profit margins of the very few, wealthy and politically connected.
Indeed, now is the time to overturn the Monterey Plus Amendments and reinstate the urban preference. This drought has thrown us into a state of crisis. But water shortages, due to both climate change and the unrelenting demands of corporate agriculture and a growing population, could well become the norm. We need equitable policies that accommodate ratepayers, the environment and sustainable agriculture. It must be noted that industrial almond production is not sustainable in the arid San Joaquin Valley.
We, the public, can reclaim our water, but we must break the unholy alliance between Sacramento and the San Joaquin agribusiness cabal. It may be 2014, but our water policies remain rooted in the 19th century. It is high time we brought them up to date.
Carolee Krieger is the president and executive director of the California Water Impact Network. www.c-win.org. To comment, submit your letter to the editor via our online form at www.sfgate.com/submissions/#1