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The prediction a few months ago was that the 2014 California almond crop would top last year’s. That turns out not to be the case as water issues put a bigger dent in the harvest than forecasters expected.

Water availability – an almost universal concern in the fourth year of punishing drought – might not have been the biggest issue. Growers drilled new wells, lowered pumps in others and generally managed to extract enough of the wet stuff to keep trees alive and productive.

The problem is reportedly poor water quality. As growers drill deeper and deeper into a sinking aquifer, the water tends to have more unwanted elements like boron.

“It was bad,” said Kings County grower Steve Walker, with 350 acres of the worldwide-popular crop. “The [nut] sizes are way down because of the [poor] water.”

On June 30, the Natural Agricultural Statistics Service forecast a crop of 2.1 billion pounds, which would have been 100 million pounds above the 2 billion pound 2013 harvest.

Experts now believe the harvest will be closer to the 1.95 billion pounds that the service predicted back on May 1 That is also 2.5 percent below the 2013 figure.

“Some of the wells just aren’t producing the quality of the water that they used to,” said Mike Kelley, president and CEO of Central California Almond Growers Association, based in Kerman.

If the drought continues unabated, Kelley predicted that the 2015 yield will again drop 10-20 percent.

There’s a different but related issue that might be shrinking harvest statistics in 2014. According to Kelley, growers are reportedly stockpiling some of the 2014 crop as a hedge against an uncertain future.

Almonds, a popular health food with seemingly limitless overseas demand, have been increasing their acreage in Kings County for several years. As production has surged upward, prices have held steady or even gone up, prompting more farmers to devote more acreage to the thirsty orchards, which require year-round watering.

Almonds were the fourth-most valuable local commodity in 2013 with a value of $122.7 million grown on nearly 18,000 acres, according to the Kings County 2013 crop report. Acreage this year was projected to climb to nearly 20,000 acres.

The demand is so high, price increases have made up for lost production this year, according to Walker.

But Walker knows there’s a limit to how high prices can go. If the drought lasts long enough, the good times that have attracted so many new growers won’t last.

As an added wildcard, Walker is wondering if groundwater pumping restrictions will begin in 2015. This year’s landmark state legislation requires a groundwater sustainability plan by 2020, with groundwater overdraft eliminated by 2040.

“I’m nervous,” Walker said. “I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen in a year or two.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.

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