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Water Wise

Do almonds use a lot of water?

All food takes water to grow, and almonds are no exception.

But really, why have I heard that almond farming uses a lot of water?

Almond trees use around the same amount of water as other California fruit and nut trees — things like pistachios, walnuts and peaches.1 That said, plants require more energy, and thus more water, to create protein than sugars.2 So while nut trees have slightly higher irrigation needs than fruits and vegetables, they are also rich in essential nutrients, good fats and protein. 

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Another way to measure the water use of almonds is via water footprint, a theoretical approach to calculating the water needed to make anything from an iPhone to a pair of jeans to food. It estimates the amount of rainfall and irrigation needed to create a product as well as the amount of water needed to offset any water pollution that occurs in the creation of that product. An oft-repeated statistic states that it takes 1 gallon of water to grow a single almond — but by that same water footprint measure, it takes 3.5 for a head of lettuce, 5 for a walnut and 660 for a hamburger.3

Should we be growing almonds in drought-prone California?

California is a global rarity – one of just five places with the Mediterranean climate needed to grow almonds. Plant-based, nutrient-dense and shelf-stable, nuts like almonds have been identified as an important food in our fight against climate change. In fact, the EAT-Lancet Commission’s planetary health diet recommends a substantial increase in global nut consumption as we work to feed a growing population in a way that’s healthy for people and the planet.4

Characterized by cool, wet winters and warm dry summers that almond trees love, Mediterranean climates like California also are prone to weather extremes like floods and droughts. As climate change makes California more susceptible to water scarcity (and floods), it’s our responsibility to use its limited water in the most sustainable way possible.

Have farmers reduced the water needed to grow almonds?

It wasn’t just recent droughts that made almond farmers focus on water conservation – we’ve been at it for decades. Research funded by farmers in the 1980s assessed if a then new irrigation method, microirrigation, could work in almond orchards. By targeting water directly to the trees’ roots instead of flooding entire fields, this new approach conserved water and increased yields. Today, over 80% of California almond farms use microirrigation,5 nearly two times the rate of California farms overall.6

As a result, California almond farmers reduced the amount of water used to grow each almond by 33 percent between the 1990s and 2010s.7 In 2018, they set a goal for an additional 20% reduction of water by 2025, work that will be achieved via innovative tools like soil moisture meters and precision scheduling as well as regenerative practices like improving soil quality which can increase its water holding capacity. As of 2022, farmers had already achieved three-quarters of that goal.8

Getting the most out of every drop.

Something that sets almonds apart is that the water used to grow almonds actually grows four products — all of which are put to good use. There’s the kernel we eat, which grows inside a woody shell and fuzzy outer hull, as well as the tree. The trees store tons of carbon each year, the shells become livestock bedding and the hulls are nutritious dairy feed, reducing the water needed to grow other feed crops.

All of California’s almond hulls are currently used for dairy feed. Almond hulls can replace alfalfa hay pound to pound up to 20% in dairy cows’ diets. This reduces the acreage needed to grow alfalfa hay by 386,000 acres, saving the equivalent of 440 billion gallons of water.9 That’s equal to the annual water use of 4 million U.S. households.10

Replenishing our underground aquifers.

Another water smart practice almond farmers use is on-farm groundwater recharge. Groundwater is a vital resource in California, held in underground aquifers that are collectively the state’s largest water storage system. In addition to surface water held in reservoirs, groundwater is used to grow food and provide drinking water across the state.

Almond farmers help replenish these underground aquifers by diverting excess rainwater and snowmelt across dormant orchards following winter storms. This also helps ease flood impacts downstream. While recharge isn’t an option in dry years or at every location, research has shown that 930,000 acres of California almond orchards have good soil conditions for groundwater recharge.11

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1 Larry Schwankl, et al. Understanding your orchard’s water requirements. University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Publication 8212. 2010.

2 Nathalie Munier-Jolain, et al. Are the carbon costs of seed production related to the quantitative and qualitative performance? An appraisal for legumes and other crops. Plant, Cell & Environment. Volume 23, Issue 11. 2005.

3 Alex Park and Julia Lurie. It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?! Mother Jones. February 2014.

4 EAT-Lancet Commission. Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission. 2019.

5 California Almond Stewardship Platform. November 2023.

6 California Department of Water Resources. Agricultural Water Use Efficiency: A Resource Management Strategy of the California Water Plan. July 2016.

7 University of California, 2010. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012. Almond Board of California, 1990-94, 2000-14.

8 California Almond Stewardship Platform. Almond Orchard 2025 Goals MidPoint, SureHarvest. November 2022.

9 UC Davis, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Sample Cost Study Alfalfa Hay and Organic Alfalfa Hay, 2020.

10 United States Environmental Protection Agency. How We Use Water, 2023. The average US household uses 109,500 gallons annually.

11 Land IQ. Groundwater Recharge Suitability Analysis. July 2023.