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How Almonds Became A Scapegoat For California's Drought

You may have heard by now that it takes one gallon of water to produce just one almond. And those are considered fighting words in drought-stricken California, which produces 80 percent of the world's supply of the tasty and nutritious nut.

So when almond grower Daniel Bays hears that, he just shakes his head.

"Almonds really aren't more thirsty than any of our other crops, " says Bays, a third-generation farmer in Westley, Calif. It's a small farming community about 90 minutes southeast of San Francisco where his family has about 700 acres of almond orchards. They also grow tomatoes, melons, beans, wheat and apricots.

"We try to keep a diverse crop portfolio just to balance out markets, weather, whatever Mother Nature throws at us," says Bays as he drives through his orchards.

But Mother Nature hasn't been kind to Bays and his family. For two years now, he and his neighbors have received no water allocation — zero — from the federal Central Valley Project, even though a canal with federal water flows right past his orchards.

"It's a little bit frustrating when you have to look at that every day. There's water there but there's none you can have unless you've saved it, banked it or paid through the nose for it," he says.

Bays is describing California's complex system in which all water is spoken for. His family happens to have "junior" water rights. In other words, they have no rights to the water running past their orchards that is destined for Southern California.

So like many farmers, the Bays have had to turn their wells for groundwater to keep their trees alive. But the groundwater is salty and, over the long haul, not good for the trees. Bays points at a small almond branch where the leaves have stopped growing.

"From here out should have new leaf growth," he says. "And you can crack at it and it's dead and here it's a little softer, there's a little bit of green left. That's just from the stress level in the tree."

Like his trees, Bays is also under stress. Almonds are caught in the crosshairs of critics who say the trees require as much as 10 percent of the state's water --in other words, too much.

"Almonds use more water than all of the indoor water use in all of California," says Tom Stokely, water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network and one of the crop's most vocal critics. "Almonds use more than all of the outdoor residential landscaping in California and almonds are not the largest water-consuming crop either."

For example, alfalfa requires a lot of water, but almonds attract more criticism in part because production for export has exploded in the past decade. It's a $4.8 billion dollar market. And that's encouraged farmers to rip out annual crops like tomatoes and melons in favor of orchards. But unlike annual crops, a farmer can't fallow an orchard.

Almond industry spokesmen say almonds are getting a bad rap.

Carissa Sauer of the Almond Board of California writes in an email that the controversy over how much water almonds use "has been filled with misinformation and bad facts. We're working hard to get out actual facts, set the record straight..."

A video posted on the Board's website states: "Over the past two decades, almond growers have reduced the amount of water used per pound of almonds by 33 percent."

Critics say that might be true, but as farmers plant more orchards, more water is consumed.

Others say that without the drought, we wouldn't be talking about almonds.

"If you listen to the spokespersons on all the sides and the pundits on all the sides, you'll pretty quickly come to understand that waste is always water used by other people," says Jay Lund, a professor of engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. "This is, I think, a natural human condition in such a dry place."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.