California Water Usage in Crops, and the Water Value of Almonds

Breakdown of California Water Usage

The total California water use in 2010 was about 70 million acre feet per year.  50% of that was environmental usage, 40% was agriculture (28 million AF/year), and 10% was urban (7 million AF/year).  Environmental means use in maintaining water recreation, or the ecology of rivers and lakes.  More than half of environmental water is rivers along the North coast which are not near areas of other uses. Among other water, 33% is environmental, 53% is agricultural, and 14% is urban.  Of the agricultural and urban water, 80% is agricultural, and 20% is urban.  However, farm production and food processing contributes about 2% of the State’s gross product.

California Agricultural Revenue

California Agriculture in 2013 brought in $46.4 billion in revenue.  Exports were $21.2 billion, which was 14.7% of US Agriculture exports.

The leading value crops in 2013 brought in:

Milk $7.6 billion

Almonds $5.8 billion

Grapes $5.6 billion

Cattle and Calves $3.1 billion

Strawberries $2.2 billion

Water Use by Crop

In order of water use by different farm crops: (numbers estimated from a chart) :

Alfalfa     5.3 million AF/year

Pasture   3.3 million AF/year

Rice         2.7 million AF/year

Cotton    2.3 million AF/year

Almonds 2.1 million AF/year

Corn        1.7 million AF/year

Vines       1.6 million AF/year

Should Water for Almonds be Diverted for Urban Usage?

Almonds and pistachios use 2.1 million acre feet.    Out of about 35 million AF/year for agricultural and urban use, almonds and pistachios are about 6%.  Out of the 28 million AF/year for agriculture, almonds and pistachios are about 9%.  That does not sound dominant.  However, compared to the 7 million AF/year for urban usage, almonds and pistachios is equivalent to 30%, which is about the whole amount of water cuts asked for by the Governor.

In 2013, almonds brought in about $5.8 billion dollars.  If you divide this amount by the population of California, about 37 million people, it comes down to $157 per capita.  As an economic investment, if the population was asked to pay this as an assessment to farmers not to use their water, and to the displaced farm laborers and local businesses, so that urban users would not have to make water cuts, would they pay it?  For a typical three person household, that would be $470 dollars per year.  Of course, if collected in taxes, higher income earners with larger lawns and maybe swimming pools would have to pay more.  Or, you can add the $157 per year to water bills split across water use, so high water users would pay a larger part of it.  Since economics is a consideration of economic alternatives, this calculation is a standard consideration.  It is quite similar to the use of farm supports, or corn for ethanol subsidies.

According to, the almond association, almond growers have increased water efficiency 33% over the last 30 years.  70% of growers use micro-irrigation, and 83% study soil moisture, weather, and the needs of the trees to determine irrigation.

As far as water for various food products, beef comes in highest at 1700 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.  According to, the almond association, there are 23 almonds to an ounce.  It takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond.  So to produce a pound of almonds, it takes 16 oz x 23 almonds/oz x 1.1 gallons/almond = 405 gallons to produce a pound of almonds.  That is less than one fourth the water usage for a pound of beef.  One pound of almonds has 2560 calories, of which 80% is fat, mostly good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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