California has its official state nut. Actually, there are four of them.
Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 1067 on Monday, which declares the almond, walnut, pistachio, and pecan each the official state nut. One of these has quickly become notorious for its association with water consumption.
According to the language of the bill, “California produces more almonds than almost anywhere else. Eight out of every ten almonds eaten in the world are grown in the state. Almonds are currently the most planted crop in the state due to an international boom in demand. Since 1995, farmers in the state have doubled the amount of agricultural land devoted to almonds to 900,000 acres.”
An Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) study from last year is consistent with the spirit of those facts. After examining aerial imagery from the National Agricultural Imagery Program between 2007 and 2014, the study showed a fourteen percent increase in almond acreage over that time.
Strictly monetarily, this growth is good business for the state. AB 1067 highlights almonds as a $4 billion industry, with 97,000 of the 100,000 statewide jobs it creates coming from the under-employed Central Valley.
The problem is, as many argued during the recent historic drought, it requires more water to grow them. Some of the land now used to grow almonds previously grew more water-intensive crops, like alfalfa, effectively lowering water consumption. However, other crops like corn and tomatoes were also replaced, which require less water than almonds. Altogether, the EKU study noted an annual increase in irrigation of 27 percent from 2007 to 2014.
This data suggests that the state is paying for its almond industry with water. Perhaps that's obvious to a degree, considering agriculture depends on water regardless of the almond. But it says something about whose interests are being served and where our priorities lie.
Nutritionally, there are worse things to consume. For instance, many lactose-intolerant, cereal eaters have transitioned to almond milk, while those cutting carbohydrates have substituted wheat flour with almond flour where appropriate. Surely, increasing supply and having these choices at more affordable prices is a good thing because it affords more people the opportunity to make those choices should they have the need.
But as Californians recently learned, it's not so simple when it's dry. The water has to come from somewhere. More water to irrigation means more water from something else. With dry times still fresh in our memories, there's a general consensus that the state has to stay ahead of the resource problem.
For many residents in the northern part of the state, particularly in the Delta, that translates to keeping a watchful eye on the legislative happenings in Sacramento, worried of looming state plans that could drain their local waterways. And even though declaring a state nut may be merely symbolic, the almond has officially taken root.