Almond farmers grow salty over drought conditions

Almonds on Tree_blogAs the drought in California drags on, it’s the almond industry that has come under scrutiny as of late as the popular nut have been cited as one of the state’s most water-guzzling crops. With much of the state’s surface water cut off, farmers have turned to groundwater resources as a last-ditch effort for survival. For almonds however, the groundwater is doing more harm than good.

According to a recent article this is because groundwater contains high levels of salt. While other crops can handle the salinity, it’s killing almond trees in the Central Valley— home to around 800,000 acres of almond farms.

“The trees just don’t look healthy,” Paul Parreira said in the article. He and his brother, David ship over 30 million pounds of almonds around the globe each year. “Everybody is watering at the minimum levels with high-salinity water,” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

High salinity levels in groundwater used for agriculture has long been a problem in the west side of the Central Valley, but it’s also now an issue on the east side, a growing region at the base of the Sierra Nevada that’s usually wet, the article states.

Many farmers have zero allocation of surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, so they’re forced to irrigate with salty groundwater. And the few farmers who do get delta water say it’s also saltier than normal these days.

“Without any adequate rainfall to move those salts down through the soil, there’s just no way for us to remove those salts,” Parreira said. “Not only is it staying there, we’re adding to it because of the poor quality [of water] from the delta.”

To combat this problem, the Almond Board of California has a focused effort on salinity.

“Water quality and quantity are very big issues for us,” Bob Curtis, the board’s director of agricultural affairs, said in the article.” To that end, we are funding research on updating the impacts of salinity on almond tree growth and productivity.”

This research will help farm advisers across the region educate growers on the issue. One of those farm advisers is David Doll with the University of California Cooperative Extension based in Merced. He’s better known as the “almond doctor.”

However, in Merced, the issue isn’t just salty groundwater. The kicker is preexisting salt-laden soil. Almond trees will fight toxicity as long as they can, but at some point, they give up — and salt wins.

Doll said in the article that the answer to save the trees is to dilute the potency of salt in groundwater.

“Rain will do it naturally for us, but there’s no rain,” he said. One way around this is to dilute the salt in the ground by using irrigation water and flooding the fields, but that’s only possible if farmers have extra water.

If rain doesn’t come, Doll said to expect a shrinking California almond crop in the years to come. According to the Almond Board, that’s already happening: Crop yields for almonds statewide are projected to go down by 4% this year.

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