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Before you go nuts attacking almond growers

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POSTED August 10, 2015 12:52 a.m.

“Your (&*!%&**)ing farmers are wasting water growing almonds. Why should we have to sacrifice our lake for them and stupid fish?”

Voice mails: You’ve got to love them. People feel free to vent. The caller was irked about the South San Joaquin Irrigation District decision — made jointly with Oakdale Irrigation District — to start lowering Tulloch Lake so it will be down 30,000 acre feet through the first of March. The districts are doing it as part of their stewardship of the Stanislaus River to protect fish as well as meet a federal mandate to check release gates to make sure they are still operable in the event of a flood. I assumed by other comments the caller made that he lives by Tulloch Lake.

Let’s lay the most absurd observation to rest first. Tulloch Lake does not belong to the good people who bought parcels and built homes along its shores. It was built and paid for entirely on the dime of SSJID and OID farmers. As for the actual water in it, both district paid and secured those water rights legally more than 110 years ago.

Instead of howling how SSJID and OID are “devaluing their property values” by lowering the lake, perhaps they might want to send them thank-you cards for making their property value high to begin with. How many of the people that built nice $1 million plus showcases — or homes that cost less — at Tulloch would have done so if a developer simply offered lots that close together with a commanding view of dried grass and tinder-dry oak trees essentially in the middle of nowhere?

Tulloch was built as an irrigation reservoir in the 1950s. The first homes weren’t built until decades later.

Now let’s talk about the fish. You are going to get no argument from me that some of the state and federal policies relating to fish and water are extreme. Having said that, we should protect fish but not at all costs

Some folks at Tulloch are advancing the equivalent of voodoo science arguing that the science behind how the Bureau, various state and federal fish and water agencies, and the two districts devised a water management strategy on the Stanislaus River for the next 10 months is ill-conceived.

First, farmers and not environmentalists are paying for the real biological research on the Stanislaus River. It costs OID and SSJID farmers and property owners $1 million annually for fish research. The tab just hit $12 million

Data and real-time observations biologists are recording are showing there are more effective ways at protecting native fish that are endangered instead of just dumping more water into the river. Non-native predators such as bass are high up on the list. Both districts have also paid to improve habitats for native fish to lay eggs in addition to putting in high tech seniors and tracking systems.

The districts are working to impress upon federal and state regulators that there are effective ways at protecting fish without throwing tons of water at the problem. That’s a work in progress.  It should be noted Tulloch Lake would have been less than 50 percent full already if the SSJID and OID didn’t work hard at matching the correct fish science for the Stanislaus River with water operating decisions by the state and federal governments.

Now for the main event — how dare farmers in the SSJID grow almonds.

Using United States Department of Agriculture as well as waterfootprint.org data it takes 276 gallons to grow a pound of almonds that are classified as “high protein” nuts.

Let’s look at what it takes in water  to grow a pound of other “high protein” food: chicken, 815 gallons; cheese, 896 gallons; pork, 1,630 gallons; and beef 2,500 to 5,000 gallons.

There is one source of high protein that beats almonds. It takes 244 gallons to grow a pound of tofu.

For those who chow down on tortilla chips after enjoying Tulloch Lake without charge, that guacamole dip they are using requires 220 gallons of water for every pound of avocados used. And if they happen to nibble on chocolate, they are consuming something that takes 2,847 gallons per pound to produce.

Of course, the data that drives people nuts is the fact it takes 1.1 gallons of water to make a single almond nut and that almond growers consume the most water .

Almond growers use three times the water Los Angeles businesses and residents do in a year. But  unless you are ready to get your protein by eating the pavement of Sunset Boulevard and inhaling it from smog cut farmers some slack.

California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond crop. It went from a $1.2 billion market in 2002 to $4.8 million in 2012. And yes, more than 70 percent of that is exported. But guess what? American agriculture’s exports are perhaps the brightest spot on the ledger books went it comes to countering the Apples you can’t eat and other commodities we import. China, who we happen to have a hellacious trade deficit with, is the biggest buyer of California almonds. There demand  keeps growing as it does worldwide.

So when it comes down to it, almonds are among the most water-use effective ways to get protein in your diet,  they help counter our appetite for foreign-produced goods on the export-import balance sheet and they made it possible for a developer to build a “resort community” in the middle of nowhere when SSJID and OID farmers decided to get more efficient use out of their water rights.

Not bad for a nut.

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