California's Thirsty Almonds 

How the water-intensive crop is helping drive the governor's $25 billion plan to ship water to the desert.

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Many growers in the western San Joaquin Valley will have to make similarly tough decisions in the coming months, and Westlands, which is one of the most politically powerful agencies in the state, is revving up its PR machine to rally support for struggling farmers.

But many environmentalists have little sympathy for the Westlands almond growers. They note that if farmers hadn't zealously planted water-intensive crops in the desert, they wouldn't be in such a tight bind. "One of my associates referred to it as the 'Westlands death march,'" said Tom Stokely, a longtime water activist and member of the environmental group California Water Impact Network. "While Westlands is pursuing water and growing crops, in the long run it can't be sustained."

Since climate change could make droughts — even ones as severe as this year's — much more common, some water policy experts have also suggested taking huge swaths of farmland in the western San Joaquin Valley out of production permanently. This would conserve water, benefit the environment, and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

But Westlands growers aren't ready to give up their almonds. Instead, they're banking on Governor Jerry Brown's $25 billion water project, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), to keep them afloat. While the plan, which includes building two giant water tunnels to ship water south to Westlands and Southern California, espouses the goals of repairing the delta's impaired ecosystem and ensuring a more reliable water supply for California, its primary objective is maintaining agriculture — and almonds — in an area that gets very little rain.

At the end of December, it looked like summertime in the western San Joaquin Valley. The parched hills along I-5 were golden-brown and the soil was bone-dry. While the area is prone to long spells without rain, it experienced the driest calendar year on record in 2013 — along with much of the state.

The historic dry spell is already wreaking havoc throughout California. Late last week, the Sierra snowpack stood at just 12 percent of normal, the lowest on record for this time of year; many reservoirs are at all-time lows; and state officials reported recently that seventeen communities could run out of water in 60 to 120 days. In January, hundreds of wildfires flared up across the state during a month in which fires are typically nonexistent. Such dire conditions compelled Governor Brown to declare a drought emergency. "We can't make it rain," he said at a press conference last month. "But we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California's drought now threatens."

The dry weather will arguably take the biggest toll on Westlands' growers because, unlike farmers in other parts of the Central Valley, they have a scant natural water supply.

Over the years, Californians have tended to view the Central Valley, which spans from Redding in Northern California to Bakersfield in the south, as one giant entity. For many Bay Area residents, it's that vast farmland you see through your car window while speeding down I-5 at eighty miles per hour. But the valley's geography is incredibly nuanced, especially in terms of water.

The Sacramento Valley is the verdant area between Redding and the city of Sacramento. The middle portion of the Sacramento Valley sees between 17 and 34 inches of rain each year, and the mighty Sacramento River — which has many branches, sloughs, and a very wide flood plain — brings additional water from the surrounding mountain ranges. This relatively wet climate makes the area perfect for growing many different crops, including tree nuts. Almonds grown in the Sacramento Valley can produce four times the yields that they do in Westlands using the same amount of irrigation water.

The vast majority of California's almonds, however, are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, which is the area south of Sacramento. The region is drier overall than its northern counterpart, although portions of it get plenty of water, too.

On the east side of the valley, the towering Sierra Nevada range blocks weather systems as they move in from the Pacific Ocean, forcing them to dump their loads of rain and snow. In the spring, as the Sierra snowpack melts, surging rivers flow into the eastern San Joaquin Valley, feeding enormous underground aquifers. In some areas, tree crops barely need to be irrigated since their roots sit in the natural water table. "The east side and the center of the San Joaquin Valley is wonderful farmland, and it is well watered," said Walker, the retired UC Berkeley geography professor.

The west side of the valley, by contrast, has almost no water of its own. It's bordered to the west by the coastal range, which, unlike the Sierra, has very few rivers or streams. The mountains also create a natural barrier to the rain, making the driest parts of the region more arid than Nevada's Great Basin desert. Groundwater in Westlands is also deep in the earth — sometimes hundreds to thousands of feet below the surface — making it expensive and difficult to pump out.

Still, the west side of the valley has an abundance of one key agricultural ingredient: sunshine. And in the early 1900s, after deep-well water pumps made Westlands' groundwater accessible, irrigated agriculture in the region exploded.

It wasn't long, however, before farmers in Westlands had pumped their underground aquifers dry. Partially to rescue these growers, the federal government began constructing the Central Valley Project in the 1930s. Touted as one of the biggest water projects in the history of the world, the Central Valley Project made it possible to send trillions of gallons of freshwater from the Trinity Alps in Northern California through the delta to farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley. With this new source of cheap and abundant water, snow-white fields of cotton and endless rows of ruby-red tomatoes quickly replaced low-value grains like wheat, corn, and barley. Today, the region is an agricultural powerhouse, growing a plethora of fruits, nuts, and vegetables that generate roughly $1 billion in profits each year.

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