CMA Capitol Insight: April 14, 2015

April 14, 2015
Area(s) of Interest: Licensing & Regulatory Issues 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

The war over water

A new front has opened up in the battle over California’s future. As Gov. Jerry Brown calls for mandatory cutbacks in water use, Californians are quickly taking sides in what is emerging as the War on Almonds.

Almonds are now California’s largest food export, the sixth largest U.S. food export and the top specialty crop in America. The California crop is currently valued at over $6 billion, according to the web site for Blue Diamond, the Sacramento based almond-processing collective that is the largest producer of almonds in the world.

But the drought is quickly changing the narrative on nuts.

Now they’re being blamed by the BBC for “sucking California dry.” Similar claims have been made by liberal magazine Mother Jones, where a chart circulated widely on social media showed the total annual water use from the state’s almond crop – about 3.5 billion cubic meters – to be about five times the water used by every resident and business in Los Angeles.

The Great Almond Debate is a microcosm for bigger problems facing the state, raising questions about everything from how and how much California should grow, and illustrating how some of the state’s most knotty problems are tangled further by an increasingly global economy.

The current Almond Debate also highlights the difficultly of long-term planning when it comes to resource management. Few were talking about record-breaking drought as all those almond orchards (and grape vines) were being planted across California over the last two decades.

Whose responsibility is it to try to anticipate these changes, and what power should they have to make rules to guide our growth?

Today, California produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds. Increased domestic and global demand, particularly in emerging markets like India and China, have taken almond prices and demand to record levels.

In 2002, almonds were a $1.2 billion business in California. Today, it is five times that. California farmers have enjoyed the benefits of increased production and higher prices, and presumably the state as a whole has also benefitted from this almond boom. In 2013, there were 940,000 acres of almonds in California, according to the USDA.

Evolving dietary trends have increased momentum for the almond juggernaut. The average American now eats two pounds of almonds per year – more than twice as much than a decade ago.

Today’s almond yields are more than three times what the state was producing in the late 1990s. A trip down Highway 99 provides the evidence of the almond boom in the valley over the last two decades. Fields of seasonal crops like tomatoes and cotton have given way to permanent orchards from Tehama to Kern County.

Almonds are good business. But are they bad for California?

More almonds means more water. Unlike seasonal crops, almond orchards require water year-round. Almonds now take up about 10 percent of the state’s total water use.

The almond industry says their farmers are learning to be more efficient with water, and that the increase in orchards has not led to an increase in the amount of water allocated to valley farms. But that hasn’t stopped Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton from suggesting that the state should be more aggressive in regulating almonds and other thirsty crops.

Whether or not you believe that such a radical step is the answer, the new politics of the almond are undeniable. In drought-ravaged California, the nut is fast becoming a fissure in the debate over the allocation of diminishing, or at least uneven, natural resources.

In addition to the drought, vaccines were another big issue in the Capitol last week (and this week). A bill by Senator Richard Pan, M.D., that would require vaccines for public school children had its first hearing, and debate was emotional and intense.

In the end, the measure passed the Senate Health Committee. The bill faces three more committee hearings – in Education, Judiciary and Appropriations – before it can come up for a vote on the Senate floor.

In budget news, cash counters are busy as tax season approaches. April is the busiest month for personal income tax collections, which in turn comprise more than 60 percent of all of the state’s general fund revenues.

By and large, the news is good, with cash expected to be billions above the numbers projected by Gov. Brown in January. But there was a note of caution sounded this week by the legislative analyst’s office (LAO).

Because of California’s unique budget system, a virtual Rube Goldberg machine with schools at the center, a spike in revenues in any given year permanently increases state obligations to education. That led the LAO to issue a warning that today’s good budget news could portend future problems, with bigger obligations to schools squeezing other state-supported services.

The debate begins in earnest next month when Brown unveils his revised budget proposal. The advocates are already circling in Sacramento. And Brown may find it is much harder to deal with budget excess, now that there is money to spend, instead of using deficits as a way to say no to all of the interest groups in line for more state cash.


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