Over 80% of the world’s almonds grow in California’s arid Central Valley, which regularly suffers from drought and further aridification due to climate change.
One pound of these almonds uses about 1,230 gallons of water to grow – almost 12 liters for a single kernel.
One Pound of Almonds makes almonds’ water footprint tangible. It consists of 17 concentric circles of gallon jugs (3.78 liters each) filled with water. A one-pound glass jar of almonds stands in the center of these circles on top of a small pillar. To get to the almonds, visitors pass along a narrow pathway through the field of water in 1,230 plastic gallons, lit at night by tiny LEDs.
One Pound of Almonds was initially installed during the 2023 Bombay Beach Biennale on the playa of the drying Salton Sea, suffering from similar wicked problems of climate change, water laws, and changing hydrologies as the almond-growing Central Valley. And their fates are closely connected.
Using 1,230 plastic jugs and about 4,600 liters of water for an art project could be counterproductive to shining light on wasteful environmental practices. Therefore, we collaborated with communities around the Salton Sea and friends to collect used gallons and sourced additional jugs from a recycling place in Brawley.
In a three-day performance, we hand-filled the gallons by submerging them in the heavily polluted Salton Sea. Filling the 1,230 gallons alone took nearly 13 hours of human labor under a grudging sun. A runner then carried the full gallons to the solid part of the beach. From there, we placed them into the installation. This process invited the audience to consider Buckminster Fuller’s “energy slaves,” that army of invisible human labor equivalents in the form of fossil-fuel-driven pumps that typically deliver the water needed to grow a pound of almonds within seconds.
Once the installation wrapped up, we returned the borrowed water to the lake and the gallons to the recycling station. The pillar with the pound of almonds is the only trace left behind on the shore of the Salton Sea. As a permanent, site-specific installation, we hope it continues to spark debate and reflection about agricultural practices and their ecological consequences in the region and beyond.
The Case of Almonds
California’s Central Valley is one of the best places in the world to grow almonds. It has a perfect Mediterranean climate and an efficient infrastructure of roads, nearby harbors with easy access to international markets, massive dams and reservoirs, and over a thousand miles of canals that move water from the mountains in the north and east towards large-scale farms, built on land that has been drained, leveled and altered for farming over nearly two centuries. Due to the perfect growing conditions, cheap, subsidized water, and mechanized harvesting operations, almonds are highly profitable. As a result, almond acreage has nearly tripled from 594,000 acres in 2004 to 1.64 million in 2021, and today more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds grow in the Central Valley.
Almonds have come under increased scrutiny for their high water footprint, especially during the most severe drought in at least 1200 years, from 2012 to 2017. However, the real problem isn’t that Almonds use a lot of water to grow, which many other crops, especially grasses for dairy and meat production, do as well. While these other crops can be left fallow during drought cycles, permanent crops like almonds require year-round irrigation, hardening water demand. So when surface water is not sufficiently available, farmers increase pumping groundwater. As a result, groundwater levels are falling, leading to land subsidence, underground water storage capacity destruction, and domestic wells falling dry.
Mining ancient groundwater from deep aquifers is only economically viable because farmers use high-powered diesel pumps that each provide physical work equivalents of hundreds of humans and supply the water needed to grow one pound of almonds in seconds, nearly without cost. This subsidy keeps almonds superficially cheap, like virtually every other crop, item, product, or service, including heating, cooling, and transportation in our highly industrialized and energy-dependent economies.
Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor, philosopher, and futurist, developed the concept of Energy Slaves in the 1940s, which refers to the unseen work done by machines powered by fossil fuels. Initially, he estimated that every human relied on the labor of 17 Energy Slaves. But he later revised it to 38, and current estimates suggest that the number is closer to 100 for every working-age human. This average includes subsistence farmers, pastoralists, and indigenous communities using far less energy than middle-class Europeans and Americans. Instead, Europeans and Americans use 600 to 800 units of free human labor equivalents to sustain their lifestyle, consumption, and economy.
Performance: Filling the Gallons
To allow us to reflect on the concept of Energy Slaves and experience the labor needed to mine the water required to grow a pound of almonds, we decided to pump Salton Sea water by hand into the gallon jugs used in the installation. We sunk a large plastic box with a homemade filtration system to filter sediments from the water into the muddy ground of the Salton Sea some 50 feet from the shoreline, installed pipes and a pumping station, and were about to spend the next few days pumping when, after just 19 gallons, the “professional” hand pump broke.
So instead of standing on the shore pumping, considering the Salton Sea’s fate, or talking with visitors, we were wading far into the lake to reach areas deep enough to fetch water by submerging gallon jugs. We constantly sank into the mud, cutting our feet and legs on shells and barnacles. So we dug out settling basins along the shore to submerge the gallons, considerably shortening the distance trudging in sludge. But soon, the water became muddy from the sediments we stirred up, and the holes our feet left in the soft, slippery ground deepened with each run. It was unsustainable, and we were soon exhausted.
During lunch, we decided to build a platform with a walkway into the shallow water and dig out a much larger and deeper settling basin in front of it. It worked well and enabled us to divide the labor between a fetcher and a runner, who moved the filled gallons to the solid part of the beach. From there, we placed them into the installation that we slowly built over two and a half days.
Filling the gallons with Salton Sea water took nearly 13 hours of human labor.
Salton Sea Water
The salty water we filled from the Salton Sea into the gallon jugs has come here after a long journey. It might have started as a drop of rain or a snowflake in the Rocky Mountain National Park, in the high mountain desert around Gunnison in Colorado, or near the source of the Green River in Wyoming. On its way, it has been repeatedly dammed, channeled, and diverted from its natural course, used and reused, drunk and peed by humans, cattle, and wildlife, polluted by agriculture, industry, and cities, and cleaned and purified by rocks, sands, plants, and evaporation. It ran in concrete beds, across mountains and deserts, and up towards money, made deserts bloom, and cities boom and changed from frozen to liquid to vapor and back.
More recently, it was redirected at the Imperial Dam near Yuma in Arizona from its natural journey to the Gulf of Cortez into the All-American Canal, towards the Imperial Valley, rerouted north and further diverted into smaller and smaller canals, then sprayed by sprinklers or spread out by flood irrigation in California’s Imperial Valley, giving life to over 65 different crops, like lettuce, broccoli, carrots, onions, and spinach, but mainly alfalfa, Bermuda, and Sudan grass. From there, it drained through 32,000 miles of subsurface tile drains underlying nearly 500,000 acres of farmland and into some 1,450 miles of drainage ditches used to collect surface runoff, and on through the Alamo River or New River into the Salton Sea. Without an outlet to the ocean, it is now trapped and loaded with farming residues like fertilizers and pesticides, silt, selenium, and salts from the Colorado River, in amounts that violate water quality standards and concentrate over time by evaporation.
The mixture of Salton Sea water and sugary drinks, milk, or juices in the gallon containers began to react to the sun and heat, creating a laboratory-like environment. The liquids changed their color and hue and gave rise to new life forms. So we decided to take samples and document the gallons as separate entities to study this further.
About the Project
One Pound of Almonds is an extension of our ongoing exploration into global agriculture’s social and ecological consequences. In the framework of our LandRush project, we collaborate with farmers, fishers, scientists, indigenous peoples, and activists since 2007 to investigate seed-, water- and land rights, environmental justice, climate change, and the future of agriculture worldwide. We have been using video, photography, text and sound as investigative research tools of sense making, growing LandRush organically, chapter by chapter, in a constant research, production, and presentation cycle. This open process has allowed individual chapters and the project as a whole to surface in ever-new contexts, gradually bridging traditional journalistic publications, such as magazine and newspaper articles and short films, to linear web documentaries, interactive apps, an extensive video archive, books, and spatial multichannel installations at art institutions and museums.
We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all the people who supported us in realizing One Pound of Almonds, especially:
Wil Kain, aka. Dadaonysus came up with countless practical ideas and gave valuable feedback at all project stages.
Martin Richter helped develop the original idea when visiting us in Bombay Beach in 2022.
Our intern, Pia Deppermann, supported us with documentation of the process and research for the website. Kirsten Thys Van Den Audenaerde and Pia labored for days alongside us, helping with the gallons and building the installation.
Christopher Landis connected us to recycling & gallon producing companies months before the installation happened and documented parts of our performance during the Bombay Beach Biennale.
John Murphy collected hundreds of gallons and brought them down from Colorado.
Rob Quinn helped us construct and fill jars of almonds with epoxy, Amanda Mendonca poured the concrete pillar with us, and Czar & Delic made the stencil for fixing text to the post. David Ortiz, Jonathan Hart and Stephanie Cate helped emptying and breaking down the gallon jugs, and John Brett drove them back to the recycling company.
Brenda Ann Kenneally documented the first collection of gallons from Brawley, Scott Pasfield photographed our portrait, and Kevin Key took incredible night shots of our installation.
We also thank the Bombay Beach Biennale Fundraising Team for the financial support of the project.
And above all, the wonderful people in Bombay Beach who allowed us to become part of the community we now call our second home.
Uwe H. Martin & Frauke Huber
Bombay Beach, California
P: +49 177 455 1423
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