California is a wonderful place to grow food. The climate is highly favorable; soils are some of the best in the world, it is located well to serve global distribution markets with major ports and other transportation infrastructure; and normally, some regions are relatively well-watered.
In a climate where rainfall is so variable from one year to the next, it makes little sense to talk about what is “normal” but California farmers know to expect that some years will very dry and that sometimes there will be a string of dry years back-to-back.
Media coverage of the current California drought has included various attempts to describe where California’s water goes, from flushing toilets to growing crops to bottled water to supporting fisheries. One high-profile target in the media has been California’s major nut crop – almonds – which has been described (and often vilified) for its water use. Many stories have latched on to an estimate that each almond kernel (nut) requires around a gallon of water to produce.
This Pacific Institute analysis addresses two questions:
- Is this number correct?
- And if so, what does it really mean?
First, how much water really goes to growing California almonds? The amount of water required to grow any crop varies with the climate, soil, irrigation method, and other factors. To compute the amount of water required, we need to know the acreage of almonds, the amount of water applied per acre, the yield of almonds (measured as the final shelled product) per acre, and the number of almonds per pound. For California, here are the basic numbers:
Acreage of Almonds: In 2014, there were approximately 870,000 acres of almond orchards (bearing) throughout the state, up from around 510,000 acres in 2000 and 770,000 acres in 2010 (USDA 2015). Figure 1 shows the massive expansion of almond, pistachio, and walnut acreage between 2000 and 2014. Total crop acreage in California during this period remained relatively constant due to reductions in plantings of field crops.