When the famous statistic that says it takes 1.1 gallons (4.2 liters) of water to grow one almond in drought-stricken California hit the headlines, the nutritious, but water-sucking nut was immediately cast as the villain.
Almond growers were vilified for planting thirsty crops that require year-round watering while the state endured drought, and the agriculture industry as a whole was condemned by people who thought it should suffer the same mandatory cutbacks as urban users.
But California’s farmers were tackling the drought in other ways. Some were leaving fields fallow, increasing groundwater pumping (in some places to unsustainable levels) and experimenting with switching to less water-intensive crops.
One of the biggest gains, though, may come from techniques that make water use far more efficient.
Researchers from the University of California Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources (UCANR) and farmers have been working for years on ways of reducing water use. Techniques include switching from flood to drip irrigation or sprinklers; deploying soil sensors; using deficit irrigation where a crop is subjected to stress from getting less than the required amount of water; or tapping new technology to determine the optimum schedule for watering.
However, progress in water conservation and innovation has been slow but steady.
“Irrigation improvements take time. It’s not like you can throw a switch and convert everything,” explained Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources. “And there’s no one ‘bang, bang’ technology.”