It is a simple but vitally important fact: Water availability is of critical importance to California almond growers and handlers. Water remains the lifeblood of California’s almond industry, which in 2012 produced 2 billion pounds of almonds valued at $4.3 billion. That said, California water policy is incredibly complex, driven by intense competition among very diverse interests.

The Almond Board of California has stepped up its efforts to bring clarity to water issues of interest to growers and handlers. This article marks the first in an occasional series designed to lay out the scope of water issues having the most direct impact on the industry, while providing a solid basis for understanding the broad array of solutions being proposed.

Water System History

California’s present water resource system was conceived and constructed in the mid 20th century, and focused almost exclusively on resource extraction for human economic purposes. Into the 21st century, California’s natural resource policies have increasingly shifted to a focus on sustainability of natural resources, and the restoration or enhancement of the environment. Not surprisingly, the physical systems that were conceived under extraction policies in the 20th century are increasingly in conflict with society’s 21st century environmental and economic goals and/or values.

The water supply picture for producing California almonds is highly dependent on which region of the state a grower/handler is located. The farther north the acreage, the greater the likelihood water supplies will be generally dependable, even secure. The farther south the acreage, the greater the likelihood water supply availability will be less reliable, subject to higher uncertainty due to water-year type, competing interests and environmental regulatory constraints. Where supplies are fairly secure, the temptation arises to ask the question, “Why should I care about water supply in the rest of the state?”

Public Trust Doctrine

The debate over California’s water resources centers on what is or will constitute a beneficial use of available water supplies. There is a legal term, “public trust doctrine,” that surfaces often. This is the principle that certain resources should be preserved for public use, and the government is the party required to maintain them for the public’s reasonable use. There is limited consensus on what constitutes a legally enforceable “public trust resource” or how it will eventually be appropriated. The legislature has avoided defining it. Regardless, the public trust doctrine ideals will certainly come into play in future debates. How this will ultimately interact with water rights law is unclear, but it certainly has significant potential impacts to almond growers, handlers and agriculture in general.

Recent legislation produced a package of laws called the Delta Reform Act of 2009, which sought to gain “balance” in water resource use throughout the state. The Act focuses heavily on a “coequal” state policy of 1) seeking and achieving water supply reliability and 2) restoring/enhancing ecosystem health.These policy bookends are a direct representation of the shift in societal values toward more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices, coupled with the continuing reality of providing reliable water supplies for human use and economic prosperity.