California drought pits cities against farmers

The drought in California is dividing the state. Urban residents wonder why they have to cut back when 80 per cent of piped water is used by farmers who are insisting they have no more water to give.

Farmers of water-guzzling crops insist they're not the enemy

Drought puts almond farmers on defensive

7 years ago
Duration 1:32
Almond farmer Brad Gleason defends the amount of water used by California's almond orchards

Brad Gleason strolls between the orderly rows of almond trees in his San Joachin Valley orchard. He grabs a branch and plucks off a handful of green almond husks. The nut inside, he says, is healthy. And worth every drop of water it takes to grow it.

"The amount of protein you get from almonds and the amount of water it takes to grow that protein is far less than if you find something in poultry or beef or pork or eggs or whatever," Gleason says.

"We're doing something to benefit society out of here, and I don't think we're wasting water. We are suffering just like everybody else in this state."

If he sounds defensive it's because his tiny crop has become a giant villain in California's water wars. Since the governor required cities and towns to cut water usage by an average of 25 per cent, many urban residents are asking why their water is being restricted when about 80 percent of piped water is actually used in the state's fields and orchards.

In fact, just a handful of water-intensive crops suck up more water than all of California's lawns, showers and dishwashers combined.

For instance, it takes about three litres of water to grow one almond. All told, California's almond orchards use almost four trillion litres of water annually. That's more than three times as much as the city of Los Angeles.

"About 10 per cent of what's grown in California is almonds, there's no doubt about that," Gleason says. "And it's not a surprise that we use 10 per cent of the water."

I think what's frustrating is this idea that farmers aren't cutting back. How are you going to cut back from zero?- Brad Gleason

As he sees it, city dwellers will just have to tolerate drier lawns and shorter showers, because farmers can't possibly use any less.

"Right now we're at a zero allocation," Gleason says. "We can't give up any more water. We've done our 25 per cent and some more. I think what's frustrating is this idea that farmers aren't cutting back. How are you going to cut back from zero?"

To illustrate the point, Gleason walks across the gravel road to the canal to the right of his orchard.

The canal is so close to his crops that a kid under his almond trees could easily play catch with a friend at the water's edge. But because of the record-setting drought, the federally run canal is now off limits. It has been for two years.

"It's frustrating," Gleason says, "but we know what the rules are and we're trying to get by right now and seeing if we can make it into next year." Which isn't a given.

Yields falling

Back in the orchard, Gleason bends a branch and points to the almond tree leaves. To the untrained eye, they look green and healthy.

Almond grower Brad Gleason examines his crop for sign of drought damage. (Kim Brunhuber)

"We are not using as much [water] as we would like to on the trees and the yields are showing," Gleason says. "We've had declining yields for the last two years. As the season progresses, what we're going to see is a little burning outside of the leaf." 

Gleason now has to import water from a well a couple of kilometres away. He says he'll have to pay 10 times last year's rate, and acknowledges it will drain scarce groundwater.

Some water conservation advocates argue the state should protect dwindling water supplies by making farmers switch to crops that use less water. But Gleason says the drought will force farmers' hands.

"I think when government wants to get in and regulate markets, it typically doesn't work too well," he says. "The marketplace is going to take care of a situation where people just can't afford to water any longer. The acreages will go down."

Let the market decide

The man in charge of California's drought response agrees.

Bill Croyle, drought manger for the Department of Water Resources, says the government may intervene in five to 10 years if the situation gets much worse. Until then, he says, let the market decide.

I think if you can't sustain the critical water supplies for permanent crops, you're going to have to replace that crop with something else- Bill Croyle

"The farms have given a lot already," Croyle says.

"We have almost one million acres of fallow land occurring, which means there's no water, or they've made a decision not to farm because of the limited water supplies.

"I think if you can't sustain the critical water supplies for permanent crops, you're going to have to replace that crop with something else."

Gleason isn't thinking of replacing his crops but he's definitely planning to relocate. This will be his last generation of almond trees in this orchard.

"These trees last about 20 years. So we can't rotate in and out of these. When these trees are done, I wouldn't replant them here."

Water is too expensive, he says. His trees are too thirsty. And the land is too dry.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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