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Month November 2015

Water, the Almond and Wine: What Are the Numbers – James Melendez

In California’s seemingly non-ending drought the Almond has been magnified as a culprit and chief consumer of California’s dwindling water supply.  I am not sure where the beat up on the Almond began?  Was it Mark Bittman’s piece in the New York Times where he says that “most of those almonds are then exported” and water needed for almonds consume more than Los Angeles and San Francisco residence combined.  Bittman’s implication is that California is exporting its water.

I then started to wonder what it took to produce a gallon of wine (using this term as this is how it is most often talked about).  The use of measurement systems with respect to wine is pretty strange the U.S. government will convert total production from liters to gallons and yet wine is one of the few consumer products sold using the metrics system.  I thought it essential to understand what it takes to produce a gallon of wine–and there is not one answer but I guess I could term them estimates.  Wine or by the agricultural viewpoint grapes consume water.

All agriculture products take water–it is how much water does it take is the question.  It seems there are many positions that taking a crop like Almonds out of the equation is an easy solution–since it has been so culpritized.   There are so very many basic problems with Mark Bittman’s op-ed piece and I think his comments not well thought through.  First almonds can be grown in other places or imported if California stopped producing them; that region or state would be exporting their water too.  Hence, Bittman’s supposition is circular non-sense.  Since California produces so many almonds no other region on the planet can pick up that capacity.  If agriculture was curtailed significantly that would be an economic problem for California; jobs, tax dollar generation and for the holders of those agricultural parcels.

Also there are many crops that grow in California that could not be easily replicated in other US states.  For the most part the Western US is challenged with water and moving significant agricultural production to other states transfers the problem to another state with the same underlying problem (water or there lack of).  Alfalfa is the biggest crop by acre to support the generation of  21% of the US milk supply.  While moving some production elsewhere might be an option but again that capacity has to be built elsewhere.  It also doesn’t make sense to move all of California’s production elsewhere as California is the leading consumer of milk and milk products.  It would be an issue of importing over potentially very large distance–then there becomes the carbon foot print issue.  Also we come back to economics–it is unlikely dairy or alfafa producers are going to give up their productions without compensation.  Why should farms shut down when there is no incentive to doing so.  

There needs to be a large and long view of water usage and agriculture.  I would also call out home and industrial uses.  However, fabulously green areas like Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, and Palm Springs probably wouldn’t be so green if they didn’t consume a lot of water to keep up their appearances.  It is an artificial green that comes to a great expense for just a few.

Keep in mind what I am writing about especially there are some variance and some of them significant.  I did find contradictions in terms of say almond and walnuts–the I went ahead with what I could find the most data points to support what I have written below.

One almond take about 1.1 gallon or 4.1 litres and one walnut takes between 4-9 gallons or 15-34 liters.(1)  8 ounces of the impossibly wonderful fruit of avocado take about 72.4 gallons (274 liters)(2)    It takes about 704 gallons (2,664 liters) to grow an ounce of lentils.(3_

CIMG0206

Now onto wine: it is very hard to get a very definitive number for growing wine grapes and the total water requirement for producing a gallon of wine.  There are several and good reasons for this–each wine region has a different need for water and that can be extrapolated to site by site differences.  Somewhat like the term Terroir (which is so often misused or misunderstood) variances in wine grape production is due to angle of slopes, soil type/water retention, temperature, humidity, wind speed etc. There are even viticultural practices that differentiate a region such as central California wine regions which are more susceptible to frost–hence a layering of water to protect root structure–in a region less susceptible like Sonoma County (as example) wouldn’t necessarily need to do something like this as it does get cold in winter but it is a very different proposition than say Finger Lakes AVA in New York.   Then there are the additional practices of cleaning production facility, cleaning of wine bottles etc.  Producing wine is not an easy equation to get to one answer but several are probably the best way of approximating what is needed.

I keep seeing ranges from 75 gallons to 116 gallons of water for 1 gallon of wine(4)  and let’s compare that to milk; milk takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk.  Milk cows are only converting only a very small portion of water consumed to milk.  

Purpose of this article is not pin one agricultural product against another.  It was to have a better use of information and to speak with them with hopefully more consistency instead of culpritzing only one agricultural product like the almond.  It seems most people are not going to give up a lot of things or even economize their intake of food and beverage products.  There is a price to be paid for all food and beverages and the discussion and framing is important to recognize.  

I look at my neighbourhood in San Francisco–I live near Dolores Street where there is a medium which is extremely rare in San Francisco ran once and formerly green with grass; when the drought ends–the lesson learned should not be to replant with grass again but to use native plants that don’t depend on a timed daily sprinkling of water—living responsibly within one’s water means making changes close to home and that expands to look at our grocery cart and to not taken it for granted.

¡Salud!

James

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  1. Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going
  2. LA Times http://graphics.latimes.com/food-water-footprint/
  3. HuffPost http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/13/food-water-footprint_n_5952862.html
  4. Sacramento Bee  http://www.sacbee.com/food-drink/wine/dunne-on-wine/article2622749.html

and

Wine Economist  http://wineeconomist.com/2008/11/27/turning-water-into-wine/

Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.

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