Trading Salmon for Almonds

To survive, both depend on river water from Northern California, but one is thriving, while the other is threatened. Is that fair?


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California almond growers are expecting a record crop this year despite the drought.

Photo by Elena Longo-CC

Northern California fishermen have endured an extremely difficult year. Fishery managers closed the entire commercial salmon fishing season for half of June and all of July in much of Northern California, and in general, ocean fishing has been poor the past few years off the California coast. The drought is to blame, along with excessive water diversions from the streams where Chinook salmon spawn.

So it’s frustrating for commercial fishermen like Mike Hudson of Berkeley to hear that another part of the state’s food industry—almonds—is expecting a record crop in 2016. Almond farmers draw water from the same river systems in which Chinook salmon lay and fertilize their eggs, and to Hudson—a longtime critic of unsustainable agriculture, including growing thirsty crops like almonds in the dry San Joaquin Valley—it appears as though the farmer’s gain is his loss.

As a salmon fisherman, Hudson must abide by strictly enforced regulations—which are usually based on the latest abundance estimates for salmon—and he wants to see farmers similarly regulated. As it is, anyone can become a farmer and plant as much acreage as he wants, wherever he wants, with a few land zoning codes to mind. All he really needs is to get water, and through political influence or aggressive groundwater pumping, he usually gets it.

“We need to set [nut] tree limits, just like we have trap limits for crabs, and we need to have a limited-entry system so that not just anyone can become a farmer, just like we have for salmon and crab fishing,” said Hudson. He believes that such farming caps would be a step toward solving California’s water crisis.

Though Hudson’s business is catching fish in the ocean, the way he sees it, it’s also very much his business what farmers do on their own properties, even hundreds of miles away in the San Joaquin Valley. “It’s their land, but they’re utilizing a public trust resource—water—which belongs to everybody,” he said. The state and federal dams, pumps, and canals that deliver publicly owned water are also taxpayer funded.

The San Joaquin Valley, the epicenter of the state’s almond boom, is essentially a desert. The region depends on water pumped in from the Sacramento and Trinity river systems of Northern California. Those same river systems are also where most of the state’s salmon spawn, and during the drought, there was not enough water to meet the demands of both farmers and fish. In 2014 and 2015, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released so much water from Lake Shasta for farmers that the water remaining in the reservoir was heated by the sun to temperatures lethally high for salmon eggs. Nearly all the endangered winter-run Chinook born those summers died. The fish-kills have led to tightened restrictions on fishing and closures on ocean fishing, and fishermen are verging on bankruptcy, as a result.

But farmers, irrigating their orchards, have done comparatively well through the drought. They have continued planting millions of new almond trees each year, and this year they expect a record harvest of more than 2 billion pounds. Most of the almonds will be sold to Asia.

“We need a prohibition right now on planting permanent crops in areas that don’t have reliable surface or groundwater supplies,” said Tom Stokely, a water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network.

The problem with unrestrained growth of nut tree acreage is that permanent crops—like trees and vines—harden a farmers’ need for water. “It takes away the flexibility in water management,” Hudson explained. “In the past, if we had a drought, the government would say, ‘Mr. Farmer, this year we don’t need your potatoes. Here’s a check, and in return you don’t water your fields.’ ”

Orchards, however, cannot be fallowed in the traditional sense, because the trees will die without water. If that happens, they must be replanted—an expensive years-long process that farmers generally fight tooth-and-nail to avoid, either by pumping up groundwater or buying water from neighbors, who may in turn pump up more groundwater.

Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, has closely studied the management of water in river systems where salmon and other fish live. He believes water agencies have a public duty to curtail the continued expansion of orchards.

The State Water Resources Control Board “has not just the right, but the obligation to prevent waste and unreasonable use of water, a public resource,” Rosenfield said. “Some practices that use water could be considered wasteful and unreasonable, like planting hundreds of thousands of acres of new nut trees in a drought.”

Jay Lund, a UC Davis professor and an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, doesn’t agree with the idea of directly restraining agricultural growth. Rather, he believes the groundbreaking but slow-moving Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, will eventually curtail aquifer overdraft. Surface water use, he said, could be limited through a well-designed water market.

“Let the price of water rise,” Lund suggested via email. “This is the best way to restrict new plantings and make sure that the best use is being made of available water.”

The link between diversions of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the decline of Central Valley fishes is hotly contested by Big Ag lobbyists. They routinely argue that restrictions on pumping water from the delta have caused unnecessary difficulties for growers without benefiting fish populations. However, a long-term increase in delta water exports correlates strongly with a long-term decrease in salmon, striped bass, and delta smelt numbers, records show. In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service even attributed the 2007–2009 collapse of California’s Chinook salmon to poor ocean productivity combined with “a long-term, steady degradation of the freshwater and estuarine environment.”

But Lund feels that the economic benefits of committing water to farming are too great to disregard. “The orchards that are [being planted] do harden water demands, but they also bring in much more money to rural areas,” he wrote.

Almond farmer Jim Jasper told me much the same thing in 2015—that money should be the most important factor when talking about water use and farming: “Why would you want to stop the growth of a very successful industry?”

Published online on Sept. 8, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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