Sunday, April 19, 2015

Don't be bamboozled by big agribusiness PR bullshit

The media is being flooded with PR factoids planted by PR flacks working for big water robber barons. I just about choked when I read a news story that repeated the line about how walnuts now use 1/3 less water per calorie than a decade ago.

A serious journalist would have reported on the wasteful baseline irrigation techniques or about the growth in nut grove acreage in the period. But, this factoid was repeated with no background reporting whatsoever.  Let us now have a moment of silence to contemplate the slow death of serious environmental journalism in the MSM.

Then let us fight back against the PR flacks and help the inexperienced newbies that staff newsrooms around the country for peanuts.  BTW, peanuts are not nuts and not the permanent tree crops I am railing against here.

The western states' water crisis did not have to be a crisis.   Some have seen it coming and have warned against it.  Mostly, we were ignored or called not very nice names.  I'm a mother of a teenager and have pretty thick skin.  So let me wade it.

Nut groves were being watered by the ancient practice of flood irrigation (USGS info page).  Below, you can see the reflections of the almond trees on the surface of the water flooding the grove.  They pump this much water out of the aquifer to make almond milk.  Vegan cuisine is not without environmental harm.

Flood irrigation of almond grove picture courtesy of
Another USGS page on irrigation technologies explains that flood irrigation wastes more water at the edges of the field, but loses less to evaporation than sprinklers.  That is also true.

But, let's talk about the total evaporation loss budget.  Water is lost at every step in the process: evaporation from the water surface, evaporation from the sprinklers, evaporation from the soil and evapotranspiration through the plants.  It's one big clusterf*ck of evaporative water loss.

Moreover, these water-intensive crops are being grown in one of the world's driest regions with the highest potential evaporation.

Global mean monthly potential evaporation via Arid Lands Research Sciences at U of Arizona.
If you use a clothesline, you will notice that your laundry dries more quickly on hot days or when the air is drier. If you have lived both at sea level and high altitude, you may also know how much more quickly laundry dries at high altitude (and low atmospheric pressure).

Now, you may ask, why would someone be planting ever more nut orchards in the extremely hot (> 100 F in the summer) desert basin of the San Joaquin valley or in the hot foothills of the Sierra Nevada (~3,000 feet elevation, 90 F in the summer)?  Where do they get the water for this boondoggle?

The answer is that they rob the earth by dipping their straws/wells into ancient aquifers in a race to use it all up before someone else does.

There are many unsavory characters in the CA water wars.  But, meet two of the biggest players, the Resnicks.  They are the minds behind Pom and Fiji water, two health and environmental scams that deserve their own posts someday.

I hope this whets your appetite to parse some data on your own.  May I suggest one of our fine datasets that contain potential evaporation fields, including the NOAA/Cires 20th Century Reanalysis, V2c.


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I have been reading lately about Nestle pumping water out of our CA aquifers to SELL back to us as bottled water. They are doing some of this using expired pumping permits and/or are being charged next to nothing for robbing our water tables. Have you an opinion on this component of the drought problem?

    1. Nestle uses a small fraction of what the farmers and golf courses use. I've got other beefs with Nestle, but this one is minor.

  2. I recently spent a week in the Coachella Valley, where I witness some mind-boggling (ab)uses of water. Tilapia farms in Niland CA! Truckload of hay being taken to be pelleted and shipped to China!!! Meanwhile the local economy is in dire shape. From admittedly only a very few conversations with local residents, I suspect that most people who live in the region think that there will always be more water, and do not understand how they are being robbed of their most precious resource.

    1. I know! There are over 200 golf courses in the Coachella Valley and they fought (and beat) a plan to make them publically report how much water they pump out of the aquifer, citing privacy concerns. Meanwhile, desert wildlife are going extinct for lack of water.