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How much water do almond crops in California consume?

almond tree fieldWith California’s drought continuing to make the news, and municipal water restrictions in effect, news sources stirred up outrage by announcing it takes one gallon of water to produce one almond. That translates into approximately 20 to 24 gallons of water per ounce of almonds, meaning 10% of California’s water goes to almond farming. Suddenly, almonds were demonized.

All food production requires water. Beef for instance, requires 850 gallons of water to produce eight ounces of beef. Eight ounces of almonds, in comparison, requires 160 to 192 gallons, assuming the reported 1:1 nut-to-water ratio is correct. Compared to an equivalent amount of beef, that’s not bad, especially considering the state’s 610,000 beef cattle, who each drink 23 gallons a day.

That doesn’t mean almonds are in the clear though—almond farmers need to conserve water like anyone else suffering from the drought and exempting them isn’t fair. Almond growth consumes a staggering 1.07 trillion gallons of water a year, more than one-fifth of the amount Californians use in their homes.

Poor land use is also an issue. With the booming almond demand worldwide, farms are cropping up on land that’s really not intended for almond harvesting, such as hillsides and deserts with little natural water resources.

With demand for almonds skyrocketing in China and other developing markets, it’s easy to see why a cash-strapped farmer might want in on the $6.5 billion almond harvest. The trouble is, the sharp increase in almond tree farming appears unsustainable, especially as state water levels continue to drop. Almond trees, which require water year-round, are replacing seasonal crops.

Almonds aren’t the most water-intensive crop in the state, however—that dubious honor goes to alfalfa, which is used to feed livestock. Tomatoes are another high-water crop.

If the outcry over almonds has proven anything, it’s that Californians are increasingly concerned with water sustainability. At home, this may mean installing a salt-free water softener, which save 7,800 gallons annually. In the field, this means choosing the right crops for available terrain and focusing on produce that consumes less water. We can’t blame farmers for wanting to plant cash-rich crops, but diversity and conservation are, ultimately, much more important

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