El Niño or Not, California Almond Growers Continually Drive Water Efficiency and Innovation

Posted December 17th, 2015 by Richard Waycott, President and CEO of the Almond Board of California

Whether El Niño conditions produce above average winter precipitation or not, California’s almond growers hope for the best and plan for the worst, continually looking for new and better ways to more efficiently and responsibly use water to grow the most crop per drop.

Built on multiple generations of family farmers who hope to continue farming for generations to come, our industry understands and shares the concerns about agriculture’s impact on state and local water resources — both surface and groundwater. Like all Californians, almond growers would welcome the predicted El Niño to provide for some relief from the drought. However, we aren’t counting on it to save the day. We’re taking the long view of how the California almond industry can contribute to solutions for the water situation at hand.

Earlier this year, Almond Board of California (ABC) announced a major initiative to accelerate the potential of using almond orchards to recharge underground aquifers in the Central Valley. Groundwater has always been a vital resource in California and it plays a critical role in maintaining California’s economic and environmental sustainability. California Almond orchards, like most California farms and communities, get the water they need from a combination of sources — surface water and groundwater. However, given continued drought and associated surface water shortages, we’ve prioritized the need to invest in the sustainability of our groundwater resources — both for our farms and for all Californians. By example, innovative solutions have and are being identified, such as our partnership with the leading environmental organization, Sustainable Conservation.

By teaming up with Sustainable Conservation, we’re investing in new research to study the possibility of using almond orchards to replenish California’s groundwater basins using excess water from winter storms and snowpack flood runoff. This type of groundwater recharge mimics the Central Valley hydrology that existed before the state’s many dams and reservoirs were built, taking advantage of flood flows to recharge groundwater basins. While the Almond Board’s Production Research program has previously funded several projects studying water movement in the soil and preserving and improving groundwater quality, this new initiative marks the ABC’s first concerted effort to increase groundwater recharge on almond acreage.

Though the ongoing drought continues affecting everyone across the state, we take pride in our industry’s longstanding commitment to data-driven next-generation farming, sustainability and responsible water practices. With a philosophy of never taking anything for granted — especially the weather — ongoing Almond Board of California research continuously generates improvements in efficiency, benefitting water and other crop inputs’ management.

Through nearly 100 Almond Board-funded research projects, almond growers have incorporated state-of-the-art, research-proven irrigation practices that have reduced the amount of water needed to grow each pound of almonds by 33 percent since 1994. Almond growers were early adopters of advanced drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation and now more than 70 percent of growers use these systems in their orchards, far above the average reported for Californian irrigated acreage.

A number of growers also use a variety of advanced technologies developed by university researchers and other experts to determine how much water their trees really need, ensuring that exactly the right amount of water is delivered in precisely the right place, at just the right time.

Surviving bad conditions and thriving in good ones is the nature of farming in California. Even with the El Niño prediction, we never know for sure when, how much or where the rain and snow will fall. The experts say a single rainy season — even a big one — will not be enough to alleviate this terrible drought. Regardless, water is always precious to almond farmers because it means life to our trees, to our families, and to the more than 100,000 jobs the industry supports.

No matter what the future holds, almond growers will continue to do what they’ve always done and that is to innovate, adapt, and improve farming practices. The ABC looks forward to supporting our growers by continuing to invest millions of dollars in important research and sharing best practices to improve water efficiency for a more sustainable California.

Richard Waycott is President and CEO of the Almond Board of California.