High salinity in groundwater impacting Valley almond crop

LOS BANOS, Calif. (KFSN) -- Salty earth is the reason for smaller almonds this year in the Valley. And after four years of drought, almond growers say an over-reliance of groundwater pumping is slowly killing their trees.

Growers say several factors are compounding the problem: the drought, the high salinity in groundwater used for irrigation and quality issues in water delivered from the delta.

The signs of distress are obvious in one Los Banos almond orchard: loss of foliage, burned leaves and a much smaller crop that looks to be drying up. Almond grower Paul Parreira likens it to a train wreck in slow motion. He said, "What we're seeing is a tree that defoliated earlier in the growing season, which means it lost all of its leaves due to high salinity."

Groundwater pumping has become the norm with so many growers facing zero water allocation. You can actually see the salts rising to the top of the soil where the trees are irrigated. But Parreira says surface water delivered from the delta also has its quality problems. He said, "The municipalities from Stockton on up through Sacramento are dumping their affluent water -- basically their treated sewage water."

Parreira says the salty irrigation water has also impacted the size of his almonds. The crop in the 80-acre orchard has shrunk by two thirds. The nuts are also much smaller this year. "About the only thing that kernel is going to be good for is something that's really low valued, as almond butter or almond milk," said Parreira.

This problem has been reported by growers around Western Fresno and Merced County. They're all praying for rain. "Without any rainfall to push the salts naturally down through the soil, it's just this continued buildups of salt and boron," said Parreira.

After harvest, this 20-year-old orchard will be pulled out. The trees would have been productive for at least six more years.

For years we've heard grower concerns over using too much groundwater. Those trees give us a pretty good indication of what salinity can do to an almond crop.
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