Nonprofit says almond and alfalfa crops depleting California water resources

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Nonprofit says alfalfa and almond crops depleting California water resources
Photo credit: Food and Water Watch

STATEWIDE – Big Ag, Big Oil, and the California Water Crisis reports that most of California’s water goes not for individual use, but instead to fossil fuel interest and corporate agriculture – including alfalfa and almond crops. The Food and Water Watch group released the updated report to acknowledge that although California received heavy rain and snow in January 2023, the state remains in drought and long-term water issues persist

The nonprofit group argues that government attention and media coverage about drought focuses on things individuals can do to save water, but ignores the fact that agriculture uses the most water.

“In California, 80% of our water goes toward agriculture and 20% of that goes to tree nuts. Around two-thirds of these nuts are exported overseas, leaving massive profits for corporate titans, but less water in California,” states the report.

Almonds Crops

California’s almonds were valued at $5 billion in 2021. According to the report, the almond boom has been a windfall for a handful of corporate farms, including the Wonderful Company — one of the largest growers and packers of almonds and pistachios in the world. Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick own the Wonderful Company.

“The Resnicks are also major political contributors and gave $250,000 to Governor Newsom’s campaign against the recall election in 2021,” says the report.

Almond acreage in California has increased steadily since the 1990s and nearly 78 percent from 2010 to 2022. 

Nonprofit says alfalfa and almond crops depleting California water resources
Photo credit: Food and Water Watch

The report says that the Westlands Water District in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley is home to rampant almond production. The district pumped more than 326 billion gallons of groundwater from 2015 to 2020. This is enough to provide more than half of California’s residents with the new recommended amount of daily indoor water usage – 42 gallons per person per day, for one year.  

“Nevertheless, during the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior awarded the Westlands Water District a massive, permanent water contract that, according to the Los Angeles Times, would provide the district with around twice as much water as is used by the 4 million residents of Los Angeles each year,” states the report.

Exporting Alfalfa

Food and Water Watch says another 16% of California’s water is used for alfalfa. Alfalfa is a water-intensive crop used to feed cows on factory farms or for export. 

“In 2020, California exported 35 percent of its hay – which includes alfalfa, making it the state’s twelfth most valuable export, generating hundreds of millions in revenue for large landowners,” states the report.

For example, Fondomonte Farms, a subsidiary of the Saudi company Almarai, owns 15,000 acres and massive storehouses in Blythe. They grow and export alfalfa back to Saudi Arabia to feed dairy cows. The move to California and other parts of the southwest came after the Saudi government banned growing livestock feed in 2016. 

“The Saudi government determined that these water intensive crops were not a good match for the desert climate and limited freshwater resources in Saudi Arabia,” states the report.

The report goes on to list mega dairy factory farms water consumption at 142 million gallons a day. In addition, oil and gas companies used over 3 billion gallons of freshwater for drilling operations between January 2018 and March 2021.

“At the same time, fossil fuel operations have polluted California’s aquifers with dirty wastewater,” states the report.

California’s Management Strategy

The report says that California has implemented water laws and rights in a way that fails to protect the finite resource. This contributes to water shortages in the state. 

In California, a “water right” does not constitute ownership of water. It is rather a legally recognized entitlement to use water for “reasonable” and “beneficial” uses without harming anyone else’s water entitlements.

Photo credit: Food and Water Watch

The report states that the water shortage that places a burden on the state’s most vulnerable communities is due to:

  • the complicated water entitlement system;
  • promising corporations more water than available;
  • and lack of groundwater withdrawal regulations. 

Food and Water Watch says in August 2022, Newsom released a plan that claimed to prepare California for a drier future. 

“Yet rather than take on Big Ag and Big Oil, which are driving the climate crisis and drought, Governor Newsom is promoting industry boondoggles like desalination and building massive tunnel projects to further complicate California’s water system,” states the report.

The plan talked about reducing water use in cities and on farms. However, the report says it does not mention reducing oil and gas companies water consumption.

In addition, the report says Newsom is promoting carbon capture and storage — an unproven, water-intensive technology. He also promotes a tunnel –  the Delta Conveyance Project. The tunnel will bring more water from Northern California to support industrial agriculture in the Central Valley. 

“Like its 2018 predecessor, this proposal will cost billions of dollars (an initial estimate places the cost at $16 billion) and take more than a decade to complete. The tunnel would threaten the already vulnerable Delta ecosystem that is home to vital Delta smelt and Chinook salmon populations,” states the report.

Storage Facility Build Out and Wastewater into Drinking Water 

According to the report, Newsom’s water plan relies heavily on building out storage facilities. 

“Newsom has led the effort to revive that environmentally destructive reservoir project, which would store up to nearly 500 billion gallons by taking water out of critical ecosystems on the Sacramento River. The Sites Reservoir would be owned and operated by Big Ag interests,” states the report.

The state also seeks to facilitate new water recycling facilities. It plans to issue regulations for direct potable reuse of wastewater in 2023. 

RELATED: Mojave Water Agency community workshop series begins tonight

Direct potable reuse — toilet-to-tap, relies on advanced treatment systems to treat sewage from cities to drinking water standards. It will be delivered directly — without environmental buffers to further filter the water, to homes for drinking and other uses.

Food and Water Watch says direct potable reuse systems are vulnerable to major failures. In addition, water recycling is twice as expensive as traditional treatment. This makes it the second most expensive water supply option.

Consequences

Food and Water Watch says as water shortages continue, Californians will continue to pay the price. 

“Domestic water wells run dry more often than agricultural wells on massive farms because they are usually shallower, and homeowners may lack the resources to pay for new, deeper wells,” states the report.

In addition, low water levels and warm temperatures are causing problems for fisheries in the Klamath River Basin and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The C’waam and Koptu sucker fish, the Chinook salmon, and the Delta smelt fisheries are collapsing. Several species are facing extinction that central to a few Indigenous tribes in the region.

“Senior water rights holders and wealthy water districts possess a great degree of power in water allocation decisions — decisions that often ignore Indigenous communities and communities of color that were removed from their land and faced racism that limited their ability to own land and water rights,” states the report.

Proposed Solutions

To address California water shortage Food and Water Watch, recommend that Newsom and the State Water Resources Control Board should:

  • Declare using groundwater to grow almonds and alfalfa in the southwest San Joaquin Valley a “waste.” Stop new almond and alfalfa planting in the region. Provide assistance to help small growers transition to more sustainable and less-thirsty crops.  
  • Ban new mega-dairies and the expansion of existing ones. 
  • Place an immediate moratorium on new oil and gas operations in California. 
  • Transition to 100 percent renewable electricity generation like solar and wind.

    Nonprofit says alfalfa and almond crops depleting California water resources
    Photo credit: Food and Water Watch
  • Improve water management regulations and practices. Define all water, including groundwater, as a public trust resource, not a commodity subject to resource extraction. 
  • Improve the transparency of water rights transactions, including prices, volumes, and regulations. 
  • Respect the water rights of Indigenous communities. Actively consult with Indigenous communities on water rights and best water management practices. Prioritize state support to disadvantaged communities experiencing water shortages. 
  • During the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), ensure that groundwater agencies and Groundwater Sustainability Plans reflect the needs of all stakeholders. This includes vulnerable communities, small and rural water systems. 
  • Pass legislation to curtail groundwater pumping and protect the human right to water during the implementation of the SGMA. 
  • Declare mandatory conservation measures across the state. Limit indoor water consumption to 42 gallons per person per day as set by 2022 Senate Bill 1157. 
  • Reject public subsidies for water projects that support ocean desalination projects and the wasteful water practices of Big Ag. Reject false solutions like the Delta Conveyance Project.
  • Prioritize locating and repairing leaky water pipes as the state’s water infrastructure continues to age. 

To read the full report visit https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/CalWaterCrisis.pdf

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