California’s Insane Nut Boom, In 3 Simple Charts

Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are making bank in the Golden State—but the groundwater supply is paying the price.

<a href="" target="_blank">mamma_mia</a>/Shutterstock

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

California has entered the age of King Nut: The state produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and roughly 30 and 40 percent of the world’s pistachios and walnuts, respectively. Most of the production takes place in the Central Valley, a swath of farmland in California’s midsection.

A single almond requires a gallon of water to grow—bad news in the midst of California’s worst drought in half a millennium. But with ever-rising demand in a nut-crazed world, farmers continue to expand orchards, pumping water out of the ground to make up for the dried-up surface water. These charts tell the story:


Charts by Lei Wang and Julia Lurie

As my colleague Tom Philpott recently reported, Since 2011, central California has lost “more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually—over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley.”

Groundwater is the stuff of centuries: rain percolating for ages through pores of soil and rock, coming to rest in aquifers. In wet seasons, water generally begins its slow trickle-down journey to replenish the aquifers (the small upward spikes in the third chart above). But as Jay Famiglietti, the NASA water scientist who gathered the groundwater data, has stated, “The downs are way bigger than the ups, which means that groundwater levels are on a one-way journey to the very bottom of the Central Valley.”


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend