Community Columns

Claudia Newcorn: Is there enough water for people and nuts?

A Stanislaus County almond orchard
A Stanislaus County almond orchard

Do almond barons put us at water risk?

Long, long ago (mid-1800s), in a land far, far away (Lake Tahoe), eager opportunists seized on what became known as “green gold.” Ancient stands of virgin timber were decimated to support mining and railroad development. Timber barons flourished, implicitly supported by Congress’ 1862 Pacific Railway Act and the 1878 Timber and Stone Act. By the end of the century, clear cutting had denuded the mountain slopes, leaving behind ragged stumps, erosion, debris – what today would be considered an environmental travesty. Timber companies abandoned the region, leaving the mess for others to clean up.

Fast forward to 2014. Now we have “almond gold.” According to a Sept. 27 article in The Bee (“Almond boom’s price,” Page A1), acreage has more than doubled in 15 years to more than 160,000 – and that’s just in Stanislaus County. Both local farmers and outside groups are investing in almond acreage, eager to capitalize on the world’s growing demand for almonds and surging prices.

Sound familiar? Is this the “green gold” boom, revisited?

Proliferating almond orchards are sucking groundwater to counteract the effects of the drought. Because the aquifer is a shared resource, many people near these orchards report their pumps sucking air as their shallower wells run dry. Meanwhile, local and county officials dither about what to do.

Throughout the lower San Joaquin Valley, there has been clear documentation of ground sinking when aquifers are depleted; once they collapse, they can never be refilled. Concurrently, when we do get precipitation, more is falling as rain than snow, and all the evidence points to an evolving climate – something California has experienced before. What happens if our cumulative precipitation is declining, further affecting the aquifers and water flows from the mountains?

But like the timber barons, the almond barons seem to shrug off these facts, many expressing outrage that there might be any water regulation at all. And when water does become limited – due to regulation and/or ongoing drought – how many of these barons will abandon the industry, possibly even their acreage, leaving locals to struggle with permanently damaged water resources? Unlike Lake Tahoe forests, aquifers won’t regrow.

Agricultural jobs are already suffering, per The Bee’s article, accompanied by a measurable decline in crop diversification. If you regard crops as analogous to the stock market, shouldn’t our agricultural portfolio be well-diversified to balance demand shifts? What happens if global almond demand scales back or prices drop due to overproduction or production moves elsewhere? We’ve seen it before, in commodities such as peaches and sugar beets.

It seems counterintuitive that the almond barons would not prefer to support smart water regulation that would ensure long-term survivability of their orchards. But then, I live in a region technically classified as an inland desert, where the concept of putting in residential water meters is a recent development. And homeowners are shrieking about not being able to have unlimited water for their lawns.

I guess the almond doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Nobody is “entitled” to unlimited water. This is a mindset that many Californians don’t want to accept, including here in Stanislaus County. Sadly, when dollars fuel decision-making, long-term risks are set aside. Unfortunately, it’s the county residents and businesses that will eventually suffer if the almond barons leave due to a water shortage they have helped create. Déjà vu anyone?

Newcorn is a marketing consultant, author and freelance writer. Send comments or questions to