DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The four-year drought in California has brought new water restrictions and also some finger-pointing about who's wasting water. Many city dwellers and environmentalists think the chief culprit is agriculture. That industry does use about 80 percent of the state's water. And much of the controversy is focusing on one little nut. Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: You may have heard by now that it takes one gallon of water to produce just one almond. Daniel Bays has heard that a lot too. And he shakes his head.
DANIEL BAYS: Almonds really aren't any more thirsty than any of our other crops.
GONZALES: Bays is a third-generation grower in Westley, a small farming community about 90 minutes southeast of San Francisco. Driving through his orchards, he says almonds are the best place he could put his water because it's his most lucrative crop. His family also grows tomatoes, beans, melons, wheat and apricots.
BAYS: We try to keep a diverse crop portfolio just to kind of balance out markets, whether - whatever Mother Nature throws at us.
GONZALES: But Mother Nature hasn't been kind to Bays. For two years now, he and his neighbors have received no water allocation from the federal Central Valley Project, even though a canal with federal water flows right past his orchards.
All this water is rolling right past your orchards. But you don't get to have any of it.
BAYS: Nope. (Laughter). It's a little bit frustrating when you have to look at that every day. And there's water there, but there's none that you can have unless you've saved it or banked it or paid through the nose for it.
GONZALES: What Bays is describing is part of California's complicated system where all water is spoken for. His family has what's called junior water rights - in other words, no right to the water running past their orchards, which is destined for Southern California. So like many farmers, the Bays have had to turn to their wells for groundwater to keep their trees alive. But their groundwater is salty and, over the long haul, not good for the trees. Bays points to a small almond branch where the leaves have stopped growing.
BAYS: From here out, you should have new leaf growth on here. And you can crack at it, and it's dead. And here it's a little softer. There's a little bit of green left. But that's just from a stress level in the tree.
GONZALES: Like his trees, Bays is also under stress. That's because as the drought worsens, almonds are caught in the crosshairs of critics who say these trees require as much as 10 percent of California's water - in other words, too much. Tom Stokely is a water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network.
TOM STOKELY: Almonds use more water than all of the indoor residential use in all of California. Almonds use more water than all of the outdoor residential landscaping in California. And almonds are not the largest water-consuming crop either.
GONZALES: For example, alfalfa requires a lot of water. But almonds attract more criticism, in part because production for export has exploded in the past decade. California produces more than 80 percent of the world's almonds. It's a $4.8 billion market. And that's encouraged farmers to rip out annual crops like tomatoes and melons in favor of orchards. But unlike annual crops, a farmer can't fallow an orchard. Industry spokesmen say almonds are getting a bad rep. And they plan to crank up messages like this one already posted on the web.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Over the past two decades, almond growers have reduced the amount of water used per pound of almonds by 33 percent.
GONZALES: Critics say that might be true, but as farmers plant more orchards, more water is consumed. Still, the drought magnifies tensions in California that in good times don't attract a lot of attention. Jay Lund directs the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. He says almond growers and other farmers will have to cut back in a drought. But Lund gets philosophical when he says the debate really isn't about almonds.
JAY LUND: If you listen to the spokespersons on all these sides and the pundits on all the sides, you'll pretty quickly come to understand that waste is always water used by other people. This is, I think, a natural human condition in such a dry place.
GONZALES: It's true, says Lund; there will never be enough water for city dwellers and farmers to feel completely comfortable. But as he puts it, welcome to California. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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