Despite drought effects, California's almond market is growing

Critics say water efficiency savings are going right back into new orchards

Despite a raging drought that has yellowed lawns and fallowed crops, forecasters expect one of California's thirstiest nuts to boom in acreage.

The drought has reduced California's water supply to an all-time low, prompting officials to mandate strict cutbacks in urban communities. Farmers, who went unaffected by the regulations, say they have already made enough sacrifices by fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of fields and uprooting almost countless fruit trees.

But a crop forecast released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates better fortunes for the almond market. From 2014 to 2015, the area planted with bearing almond trees increased from 860,000 acres to 890,000. That's more mature almond trees than ever before in California.

The almond industry has of late been portrayed by the media as a water hog, though this may not be entirely fair. Almond farmers have dramatically increased their water-use efficiency, according to industry representatives, who say it now takes on average a third less water than 15 years ago to grow each almond.

But critics say all the water the industry has saved has gone right back into new orchards. Each year the industry uses as much water as the city of Los Angeles would use in three years, according to a 2014 Mother Jones article. The crop has exceeded 2 billion pounds in recent years; though this year, in spite of booming acreage, the harvest is expected to dip slightly.

About two thirds of California almonds—essentially all the almonds in America—leave the country, with the majority of the exports feeding China. The industry was worth about $5 billion in 2012 and has scored record harvests repeatedly in its past decade of explosive growth.